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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Solitude

I was once a princess, though seeing me now, you would never think it possible. The young girl who comes to help feed and clean me shows no signs of revulsion as she gently wipes my wrinkled face and toothless gums. The light that comes in through the tiny window is barely enough for her to see by, and yet she never misses a spot. Oh, to be young once more!
I doze as I wait for the next bowl of porridge...or my time to leave. The dark walls dissolve into a bright garden, radiant with greenery. I hear the voices of my companions urging me to come swing with them. A messenger appears. "Your mother the queen wants your presence in her chamber."
I was to be married to a great prince, I was informed. In a few months, I would lead the life that I had been prepared for ever since I had come of age. No more careless play and dolls. I would learn to be the queen that I had to become. What followed was an intensive instruction in all the arts and allurements that were deemed necessary.
My wedding came and went, with much fanfare. I was well pleased with my husband. He was a great prince, but a gentle and kind person, not encumbered with the arrogance and carelessness that I had seen in my brothers. We lived lives of luxury and happiness, blessed at the end of the first year with a beautiful son. What more could a princess want?
I did not see it coming, this darkening of my husband's mind to the little pleasures of our daily lives. He stopped listening as I told him of our son's latest exploits, or the lovely dress gifted to me by his sister, or the wonderful song I had heard yesterday. He wandered off moodily as I tried to draw him out about his day at court. Why was he shutting himself off to me, who had ever been his nearest and dearest for these two years?
One bright morning, after a moonless night, I woke up to find the place beside me empty, no mark of his leaving. He was gone. Where, I knew not. There was no word from him.  Days went by, weeks, months.
All in the palace shunned me and my son. They were afraid to meet my questions or my rants.
The years passed.  I grew silent, and my son went out to play, forgot that he ever had a father in his infancy. Every now and then he would come back to cry at some taunt from his playmates, as they called him 'The Fatherless One'.
I had nothing to say to him, just let the days go by one after the other, waiting. For what? For a word from he who left me. But no word ever came.
My son grew old enough to be married. Many asked me to pick out a suitable bride for him, but I resisted. What if he ran away like his father? It was bad enough that I faced all these years of loneliness, but what if I were condemning another young girl to the same fate?
My son stood before me, head bowed. " I must go to my father. Who is he?"
"In the grove outside the city, lives a large congregation of monks. Go there to the teacher who sits under the tree and ask him your question. He knows who your father is."
And so he walked away. The last I heard of him was through a messenger sent to convey to me that he had  decided to join the monks. He had found his answer, while I sat waiting for mine.
The years fly by again, and I sit every day in solitude, barring the visits of a few. I am grown too old to care for myself, and now  wait for a visitor other than he who left me so long ago. At length, I wake up from my nap to see a bright figure at the door way. I put my arms out toward Him, whom I have spent my life waiting for to come back to me. And as I totter and fall, the light fades away, but I have my answer at last.
Buddham sharanam gacchami.




Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Homo narrans

Swedish author Henning Mankell (of 'Wallander' fame) posits in the New York Times that better than calling our species Homo sapiens would be to call us  Homo narrans, or Man the Storyteller.

"It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.
Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Knowledge involves the interpretation of information. Knowledge involves listening.
So if I am right that we are storytelling creatures, and as long as we permit ourselves to be quiet for a while now and then, the eternal narrative will continue."
 With the explosion of the internet, we have gotten into hyper-storytelling mode. A million new videos, a million new blogs, a billion new tweets... The human animal is quite capable of ignoring the present in its search for the newest narration.
So, when do we have the time to stop the talking and tweeting, and really listen? Or can we listen without indulging in a reciprocal "That is your story, and it reminds me very much of the time that I...", starting off on a fresh narrative of our own. Maybe that is the point.
I will forgive Mankell his anthropocentrism when he ascribes storytelling skills only to humans. Other species do manifest the storytelling ability, to varying degrees, as far as we can tell from scientific studies. But note, that is only based upon what we know to be provable. Maybe there is still a lot more to be learnt about the storytelling modes and mechanisms among, say, elephants. But we are still preoccupied with figuring out the physical mechanisms rather than going to the next level to find out the grammar of those languages.
Till we get out of the unspoken base assumption that we are the only species in the planet capable of narratives, we as humans will continue to ascribe to animals the voices that we cannot hear or understand, making up our own stories about their lives, as they likely do about ours.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rats!

 They have been unfairly maligned, as I write in this cross post on Accidental Blogger.
That said, I will still jump on top of the nearest chair, should a rat be running around the room.
Old associations die hard, and my memory of waking up in my grandmother's village house to see  a rat scampering away from near my toes, still overrides any rational concept that may have the backing of a thousand studies!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Threaded

It's been ages since I had my eyebrows threaded. Actually, it's been three years, but I just woke up to the fact that all other Indian ladies of my acquaintance had a soigné look that comes from well-defined eyebrows, while I didn't.
Last weekend, on a rare trip to the mall, I walked past the 'Miracle Eyebrow' store, new in its location. A lone lady sat hidden behind the counter, a couple of reclining armchairs and large mirror in the front.
Should I, or shouldn't I ? Would it be expensive? Would I be better off begging for the phone number of a local housewife who threads eyebrows for $5 a pop from my friends? Maybe I should try the mall version, just this once.
I trotted up to the counter and asked. The lady looked sort of Indian, maybe a hint of the North-East in her features. 'How much do you charge for threading?"
"Fourteen dollars."
That was easily at least twice as much as the home-brew version. But who had the inclination or time to hunt those out? I took a chance on this one.
She directed me to a dentist's chair with a comfortable recline to the back and head support, pulled out a reel of white thread and started plucking away.
"Where are you from?" she asked. "Pittsburgh", I mumbled.
"No, before you came here."
"India".
"Where are you from?", I asked.
"Nepal".
"How many years have you lived in America?", she asked.
"About eighteen. What about you?"
"Eighteen!" I could hear the surprise in her voice . "I have been here only one-two years."
"Do you like America?"
"It feels like winning the lottery, coming here."
Silence, as she got to a tricky spot. A few minutes later, "Are you Hindu?"
"Yes". Curious question, why would it matter? Or maybe this was her idea of small talk.
"So you go to the temple in Monroeville."
"Yes."
"Where are you from in Nepal?"
"...Kathmandu."
"What is your name?"
"Sundori", with a slightly harsh edge to the accent.
She was finishing off at this point, with little careful trim to some errant hairs, completing with a dab of some cologne around the plucked area. I sat up and examined my reflection in the hand mirror.
Perfect, not a hair more or less, just the way I like it. When you have been blessed with reasonable eyebrows that need minimal shaping, it takes a good threader indeed to exercise the required restraint and not go overboard with the plucking
I paid at the counter, and added a couple of dollars as a tip. Her eyes widened at that. Maybe she is not used to being tipped much, especially by Indian ladies. We have a well-deserved reputation for parsimony.
Will I go back, or to some lady who I need to locate anew? ( Out of pity at the 'exhorbitant' charge, one of my friends at the dance class pulled out her phone to give me the number, she charges only $7 a pop, but is 'extremely busy'.)
I don't know. Maybe in another few months, if and when I feel there is a need, I might just stop by the mall again, to see if Sundori and her store are still there.

Note: Being curious, I tried to find out about Nepali refugees in Pittsburgh, and found that they are ethnic Nepalis fleeing Bhutan, and being resettled in the US by UNHCR. That's why the hesitation to the answer 'Kathmandu'. It's possible that Sundori was originally from Bhutan and transited to the US via Kathmandu.

My post up on Accidental Blogger about the ironies of the Bhutan refugees and the concept of Gross National Happiness that the Bhutan government pioneered a few years ago.



Saturday, November 26, 2011

Earworms, Kolaveri and Thalavali

If you frequent any of the Indian news websites, you will be convinced by now that Anirudh Ravichander is the next A.R (Rahman??) in the making, and Dhanush the next Bobby Dylan, or some such thing. Their Youtube promo " Why this Kolaveri di" for the movie '3' has taken on cult status with the views now standing at 5.7 million and counting. It has spawned imitations as well, with this 'Carnaticized' version as a good example

The tune is catchy and quite an Earworm, but the appeal of the lyrics is still a puzzle to me and probably a few million others. Why would mangled English with an '-u' attached (the sound is more like a shortened rendition of 'eww'  without the pursing of the lips), become the latest craze-u?  I vunder-u.

Will this virus go international, or is it just going to be the hordes of delighted expatriates who drool over this new phenomenon? Only time will tell, and as we all know, the internet affords only about 15 microseconds of fame to any viral video before the next one comes along to displace it.

In the mean time, I must go off to get rid of this terrible 'Thalavali' (headache) that has been possessing my head since yesterday. "Why this Thalavali-di?"

-Update: This is now officially a 'Gold award'ed Youtube phenomenon, having surpassed the 20 million view mark. It's gone international as well, as seen in this compedium of the top 10 Kolaveri-di spoofs and imitations.


I heard a proper Tamil translated version of the Tanglish in the original, and while it is nicely done, I can see why the Tanglish had more appeal. It grabs at you in a way the Tamil words do not.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Tagorian Tale

I had been asked to read out another blogger's Tamil translation of songs  from Tagore's Gitanjali for a dance performance. After examining the translations, I found them to be intensely dissatisfying, giving me the same feeling of irritation that I had as a teen,  when going through most of the English Gitanjali, barring a few poems. Tagore had tailored his English translations, softening some of the original expressions, to make it more accessible to a Western audience. It was only years later that I realized this might have triggered my early disdain of his translations.
That's when it struck me that it might be worth my attempting a translation from the Bengali to the Tamil, without the filter of the English (beyond the occasional indicator for unfamiliar words.) Here they are, in short order, with links to the Bengali originals:

"Bisshoshaathe joge jethay amaro" :
(Audio on Youtube)

உலகத்துடன் நீ ஒன்றாய் சேர்கையில்
நான் உன்னுடன் சேர்ந்துவிட்டேன்
கருங்காட்டிலில்லை நீ, தனியிருட்டிலில்லை நீ,
உள்ளத்தினாழத்தில் இல்லை நீ.
அனைவருடன் நீ கூடியிருக்க நான் உன்னுடன் கூடுகிறேன்
அனைவருக்கும் நீ கரம்நீட்டவே, என் அன்பு பெருகுகிறது,
அந்த அன்பு ஒளிககமுடியாத ஒளியாக பரவும்.
அன்பனே, அனைத்துலகில் ஆனந்தமும் நீயே
என்னானந்தமும் நீயே.

(a translation of the translation:)
As you unite with the world,
I unite with you.
You are not to be found in the forest, nor in solitude,
nor in the innermost depths of my being.
It is when you join with others that I join you,
When you reach out to them that my love for you grows.
A love inconcealable, spreading like light.
Oh Dear One, you are the world's joy, and mine. 

எத்தனை அறியாதவர்களை எனக்கறிமுகம் செய்தாய்

எத்தனை பிற அறைகளில் என்னை அமரவைத்தாய்,

தொலைவில் உள்ளவர்களை அருகே கொண்டுவந்தாய், நண்பனே,

அந்நியர்களை அன்பர்களாக்கினாய்.

பழகிய இடங்களை விட்டகலும்போது என்னாகுமென்று என்மனம் பயந்துசாகவே, புதியவர்களினுள் நீயே பழகியவன் என்பதை நான் மறந்துவிட்டேன்.

வாழ்விலும் சாவிலும் ஒருங்கே எப்பொழுதும் எனையாள்வாய்
எல்லாஜன்மங்களிலுமே என்னையறிந்தவன் நீயே.

உன்னையறிந்தால் வேறு எதுவும் இல்லை,

எத்தடையுமில்லை, பயமுமில்லை.

அனைவரையும் நான் அணைக்கையில் அவர்களில் உன் விழிப்பை

எனைஎன்றும் காணச் செய்வாய்.
(a translation of the translation:)
How many unknown people have you made known to me,
In how many chambers have you given me seats?
Brought the distant near, O Friend, made strangers into intimates.
Leaving familiar places, I am seized with a deathly fear of what might happen, 
I forget that You are ever present, the Familiar in those I meet anew.
In life and death, in all this world, at all times  You lead me,
In all lives, You best know me.
Knowing You, there is no Other, no hindrance, no fear.
In embracing all others, let me always see You awakening in them.


வாழ்க்கை வறண்டு போகவே,
கருணை வெள்ளமாகி வாராயோ.
வாழ்வில் இனிமை பறிபொகவே,
கீதாமிர்தமாகி வாராயோ.
சுற்றிலும் பலமாக இரைந்திடும் கடமையிடையில், அமைதி நாதனே!
என்னிதயத்தில் அமைதிபுகலிடமாகி வாராயோ.
மூலையில் என்மனம் தாழ்ந்து குறுகவே,
மகராஜனே! கதவைத்திறந்து ராஜகம்பீரத்துடன் வாராயோ.
ஆசைக்கடலில் என்மனம் அலைபாயவே,
அறியாமைஎனும் தூசி கண்ணை குருடாக்கவே,
தூயவனே, துயிலற்றவனே!
சீற்றமின்னலாகி எனக்கு ஞானம் அருள வாராயோ .
(translation of the translation:)
In a life that has parched up, 
Come as a rushing stream of mercy.
In a life that has lost all sweetness,
Come as the nectar-sweet song.
As roaring Duty surrounds me, O Lord of Silence,
Arrive in my heart as a peaceful refuge.
As my heart cowers in shame in a corner,
Open the door and come in with all majesty, O Royal One.
In my heart buffeted in a sea of desires,
where the dust of ignorance has blinded mine eye,
O Purest One, O Sleepless One!
Bless me with the fierce lightning of knowledge. 
 

And an extra:
(The famous 'Where the mind is without fear”, in which Tagore has recast his stronger call to action in the closing words as a meek “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.)

மனமெங்கு அச்சமின்றி இருக்கிறதோ, சிரமேங்கு நிமிர்ந்து நிற்கிறதோ,
அறிவெங்கு விலையின்றி வழங்கப்படுகின்றதோ,
தினசரி குடும்ப இன்னல் மதில்களால் பாரெங்கு பிளக்கப்படவில்லையோ,
இதயத்தின் ஆழத்திலிருந்து சொற்கள் எங்கு பிறக்கின்றதோ,
விடாமுயற்சி எங்கு எண்திசையும்  கர்மத்தின் பெருக்காகி பரவுகிறதோ,
ஆயிரமாயிரம்  பலவிதமான சரிதங்களை உருவாக்கவே.
சிந்தனை ஓடையின் தெளிந்த நீர் எங்கு  சொற்ப பழக்க பாலைவனத்தில் தன்பாதைவிட்டு  திரியவில்லையோ ,
எங்களை ஆளாக்குங்கள், உண்மையளிப்பவரே !
நீரே   எல்லா செயலுக்கும் சிந்தைக்கும் தலைவர்,
தாங்களின்
இரங்காகரத்தினால் எங்களை அடித்துதிருத்தி
அந்த சுதந்திர சுவர்க்கத்திலே பாரதத்தை விழித்திட செய்வீர்! 



translation of the translation (I have retained Tagore's original lines where suitable):


Where the mind is without fear, where the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free,
Where the walls of daily domestic divisions have not divided the world,
Where words arise from the depths of the heart,
Where tireless striving streams as action in all directions across the land,
to create manifold thousands of histories.
Where the clear stream of reason has not turned back on its path in the desert sands of lowly habit.
Make us heroic, O Truth-Giver!
You are the arbiter of all thought and action.
Strike us with your merciless hand, awaken Bharat (India) into that heaven of freedom!
----------------------------

Whether I will eventually read these out in public or not is still a question up in the air, but I enjoyed the process of translating them immensely, finding it surprisingly easier to translate directly into Tamil in my head. 
A mother tongue is still a mother tongue, after all, even if lost in the earlier years. 

----------------------------

(Thanks to K.Venkatraman for a few editorial suggestions that improved the translation of the first three songs.) 






Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Book Purist

M has reached the age where she questions every film made based on a book. I have often thought that with the current pressures of modern life and constant exposure to electronic media, that the visual grammar of films would make for an easier introduction to some of the much loved books in my library.
Case in point, the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P.G. Wodehouse. I randomly happened on the BBC version on Netflix and we were soon rolling over laughing in unison at Jeeves' supercilious 'Indeed, sir's and Bertie Wooster's madcap schemes that need the Jeeves rescue missions to recover from disaster. I went ahead to get the companion edition of J&W novels, hoping that M would give it a try.
And she has, very successfully, taking to it like a duck in water. She has read her way through The Code of the Woosters and loves to discuss arcane details that never made it from print to film.
We watched Heidi recently, and M promptly declared that she would give it passing marks, but only just. She didn't mind the rearranging of some of the events from the book, but felt that some of the characters weren't quite as true to the book as she had hoped.
But the movie extravaganza based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic 'A Little Princess' scored majorly in the failing department, despite being gushed over by critics as wonderfully artistic and creative. The transfer of the story from England to the US, the period from the Victorian era to the World War I period,  the overly arty introduction of dream sequences with cartoonishly painted characters from Hindu mythology, all of these had us giving up on the main movie. It makes one want to go to bed and curl up with the original book in question, rather than watch the screen version.
The Borrowers, with its simplified, designed to please the US fan base, storyline, with brief nods to the original, scored as a Fail, again.
At this rate, I shall (a) either stick with ordering movie versions only if they are guaranteed to be from the 80's Brit vintage years (b) forego getting the movie version entirely, rather than listen to complaints about yet another director who has not 'read the book'.
In that spirit, I suspect we shall hear more complaints about the recent Spielberg adaptation of Tintin in The Secret of the Unicorn. While being given charitably good reviews, the red flag that went up on my skimming of those is that Captain Haddock doesn't once utter 'Billions of blistering barnacles'. Andy Serkis and all the hoopla of motion capture notwithstanding, this version will not stand a chance with The Book Purist.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fly free, Little Bird

Yesterday, I thought of Kochuthresiamma. It had been a long while since I saw any updates to her blog. The last comment on her most recent post was an anxious inquiry as to why no new posts from her.

I checked on her personal blog page, and there on Oct 22 was a Thank you to another well-wisher. No details were there, but I had an uneasy feeling about it.

Kochuthresiamma P.J. (aka Molly) of http://pareltank.blogspot.com/ passed away yesterday, November 8, 2011 at 1am Indian Standard Time, not long before I thought of her and checked her blog.

You were much loved, and will be missed by all of us, family and friends in real life as well as those of us who were purely online friends.

RIP, Kochuthresiamma.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Snow on Leaves

It's just as well that I moved the jasmine indoors last night.
This morning I peered outside the window to see the world rimed with a layer of snow. Snow on the unraked leaves, snow on the deck planks, snow on the rhododendrons, on the cauliflower chrysanthemums that sat so cheerily outside the front door.
Our large yellow maple still has a nearly full head of leaves, waiting for the next windstorm to shed them. The road glistens in the streetlight, no traffic yet.
The sun will rise, and this first snow of the season will melt away. But it is always a special occasion, that morning when you wake up and see a different world from what you expected, covered with snow, unmarked yet by scampering paws or booted feet.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beginnings and Ends

A whole sentence in a Tamil word, that I can still quote by heart after all these years:
"ஆதி அந்தமில்லாத கால வெள்ளத்தில் கற்பனை ஓடத்தில் ஏறி நம்முடன் சிறிது நேரம் பிரயாணம் செய்யுமாறு நேயர்களை அழைக்கிறோம். "

Loosely translated, it means "In the flowing waters of Time, without beginning or end, in the boat of Imagination, we ask our readers to travel with us for a little while."


That was the starting line of the 20th century Tamil epic novel 'Ponniyin Selvan' written in serialized form by Kalki. It was also the first line in any Tamil novel, that I, a neophyte who had only laboriously made my way through tiny jokes in the magazines, was attempting to read. My mother plunked the book down in front of me "You can try reading this, to improve your Tamil", she suggested.
What did the first word mean, then the next, then the next. I think that I asked her several times before I manage to complete the first page, till she told me. "Don't worry about not knowing the meaning of every word. Just keep reading."
So that's what I did. To my amazement, I was hooked on the storyline by about chapter 3 or thereabouts, and continued reading in every minute of spare time I could muster. I would glare at the clock, showing me that it was time to leave for school, begging for another 5 minutes to finish the chapter, which never came. That had to wait till I tossed my satchel and grabbed the book after I raced home.
This was my equivalent of the Lord of the Rings craze, or in later years the Harry Potter phenomenon. A book so well-crafted, wonderful characters and plots galore that I would spend entire evenings making lists of characters and drawing trees connecting each to another in terms of relationships.
The years passed, the memories faded, but that of the first enchantment still lingers. Now and then, whispers build up of X the famous actor, or Y the famous director, optioning the book to make a movie out of it. But how will they compress five volumes of non-stop action, intrigue, chivalry and romance into a two or even three hour screenfest?
It's just as well that such projects have either been shelved or set on the backburner. Let the dreams of the dreamers reading the book remain just so. The book still commands a fan club all its own, after all these years.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Promises

Leena lovingly fingered the book that she had found in the bookstore after much searching: An English translation of Ashapurna Debi's "Prothom Pratishruti", or 'The First Promise". Finally, a chance to read a book that had haunted her all these years, not because she had read it, but because she hadn't.


Those were the days in college, when her closest friend Priya had handed her a book to read, promising her "It's a wonderful story! You must read this". The book was a Malayalam translation of  "The First Promise". But Leena's reading was pitifully slow- growing up in schools all over the north had cramped her ability to learn her mother tongue. She struggled through the first page with its impossibly tiny lettering, shoved the hard-worn, covers-missing book into her shelf, and forgot about it for the next five years.

Then there was that day at work, when Leena caught sight of Joseph at the office. He had joined the same company recently. Leena smiled and waved at him. He had been a classmate during the college years, always stopping by every now and then for friendly chitchat with her and Priya.

One evening as she walked from the office to the bus stop, Joseph paused his scooter next to her on his way out. "Leena, how are you? I wanted to talk privately with you, could you spare a few minutes?"
Leena was puzzled, and a bit alarmed. What could this all be about? He continued earnestly, "Do you still talk to Priya sometimes? "
"Yes, but not so often now, after college days."
"Leena, I need your help. Could you get this letter to her somehow? I have been trying to reach her, but she isn't responding to mailed letters. Promise me that you will get it to her, " he pleaded.
Leena didn't dare ask more. She quietly took the letter, placed it in her purse, nodded a good bye and walked off.

Thoughts were abuzz in her head. How was she to accomplish what Joseph had asked of her? Something was afoot, even if she didn't know precisely what. All that mattered was keeping her word.

She called Priya's home. Priya's mother answered the phone. After some light pleasantries, Leena asked if she could stop by to return Priya's old book, long overdue as it was. A little hesitation on the other end, and the lady assented, " Priya will be home tomorrow evening."

The next evening, Leena stopped by the house. Priya rushed to the gate to open it, and Leena  handed her the letter "From Joseph". As they walked toward the house, Priya crumpled it into her housecoat pocket. A moment later, her mother appeared welcomingly at the door.
"Tea, juice?"
"Tea, auntie. It's been so long since I had the pleasure of meeting you all. By the way, here is the book that I borrowed from you, Priya."
Priya's mother took it in a smooth swift move, intercepting it before Priya could put her hand out. "Oh, so that's where it went ", she glided towards the kitchen, casually riffling through the pages.

Leena headed home after the visit, content that she had been able to keep her promise. As to what it might have been about, she didn't care to ruminate too much over it, though she could guess. Come to think of it, why had she been so blind to the furtive affection between Priya and Joseph? Maybe because she didn't want to see what didn't concern her. Or was it the sheer inattentiveness of being young and completely busy with her studies?

Until a week later, the phone rang. Leena picked up the phone. At the other end was a screaming and lambasting she had never heard in all her twenty-two years. "How dare you break up my family! See what my daughter has done! Run off with that good-for-nothing Joseph! What about the prestige of our family! Just wait and see what I do to you if I ever set eyes on you!"
Trembling, she set the phone down.
Seeing her looking a bit upset, her mother asked."What was that call about?"
"Nothing. "
"Was it Priya's mother? She called earlier today and complained that you had passed on a letter from some Joseph to Priya. Did you do that?"
"No, I just returned her book to her. I don't know what was in that book."
"Hmmm....Be careful about these things, you shouldn't be interfering in other's family matters."

Joseph and Priya got married in secret.After several months, their families eventually reconciled with them. Leena didn't hear from them until many years had passed.

Leena opened the book: "I did not make up Satyabati's story. I took it from Bakul's notebook. Bakul told me. 'You can treat it as fiction, or fact - whatever you wish!"*, she read, and smiled quietly to herself.


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* Lines quoted from "The First Promise" by Ashapurna Debi, translated from the Bengali by Indira Chowdhury, (c) Orient BlackSwan Pvt. Ltd., 2009

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Life moves on...

Today, driving past the burnt out debris of the previous months, the land had been gently levelled. No more police tape, no more rusting hulk of Lexus. Just two deer browsing delicately on wildflowers at the edge of the lot.

I was returning from a funeral, the first that I have attended in years. The lady had lost a several-years-long battle against cancer. She was the mother of a girl whose arangetram I attended a few months back, the arangetram having been advanced to allow her to see her daughter on stage before she passed away. It was one of the saddest that I had seen. The dancing was good, but the light-hearted speeches that have become the hallmark of the 'half-time' were now replaced by a peppy speech by a very weak, short-haired lady in a wheelchair, trying to raise the spirits of the audience. The father broke down in tears before he could speak more than a few short sentences. The sense of 'living on borrowed time' was never as palpable as that moment.
Yesterday, her battle ended, and the calls were made, informing near and dear, friends and well-wishers that she had finally gone Home.
We gathered at the funeral home for a final viewing, a curious but entirely appropriate melding of Hindu tradition and Western location and trappings. There were baskets of tastefully arranged roses aplenty, as were rose petals, incense, bhajan-kirtan playing softly in the background. No chairs except for a few, as we stood at the periphery of the room around the wheeled bier.
She looked very tiny and frail, draped in a red saree, inundated with flowers at her head and feet, while her mother-in-law sat in a chair nearby, weeping, sometimes silent, sometimes loud.
The husband and daughter stood behind, in a sad reception line, receiving the condolences and hugs from those come to pay their last respects. It might have been easier on them, had they been allowed to sit, as they might have done in India. But this is the US. Everything is governed by the clock, as is the duration of the 'shraddh' ceremony, or the timing of when the actual cremation would take place.
An hour later, a be-suited gentleman announced it was time to file by in a last round before the final move down to the crematorium where only a few close family members would be permitted.
Tears flowed aplenty, no stoic faces or eulogies, just the chanting of the priest as he led the husband carefully through a final offering of prayer and ritual. We sat right behind, some ladies awkwardly splayed in their short black skirts, shoes removed at the entrance, all gracious in acceding to Indian custom.
A short while later, it was all over, as the nearest and dearest re-entered the room. People started to leave quietly. This is one occasion where one never utters the traditional leavetaking phrase of 'We'll be back". But of course, we will all be back, some day, some time.

Fare well, Keka. I never knew you as well in life, as I do in death.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Carpe diem

Life is fragile.

On Friday, I drove home through a terrible thunderstorm, so bad that I could barely see the road ahead.The wipers struggled in valiant and futile rhythm against the windshield. I stopped for milk at the drugstore near my home, with ominous clouds looming over it, only to get soaked as I ran to the safety of my car.

The car was not a haven for several people that same day. Flash flooding, gushing water out of manholes from 100 inch sewer pipes, inundated a heavily travelled roadway in Pittsburgh.  4 people died, including a mother and her two daughters trapped in their van, and a woman swept away by the waters as she tried to get out.

And then there is still the hulking shell of a rusting car, sitting amongst a pile of burnt out debris amidst the elms.

Some months ago, it was an older wood-shingled home, a  peaceful haven surrounded by a sylvan wonderland, always with a welcoming electric candle in every window, at night. Not any more. It burnt down in a fire two months ago. One occupant died, an elderly lady whose name made a brief appearance in the obituaries, then vanished from the collective memory.

I don't like to drive up that road any more. It was too much of a reminder of the secret fear that we face. That of death.

Which is why the news of the four who drowned on Friday gives me pause. They are gone, their lives spent on this earth remain, to be mourned by those who were left behind. Where did they go?
We can only imagine.

In the meantime between Start and End, enjoy every moment of your day.

"Gather ye Rosebuds while ye may" by Waterhouse



Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Waiting for Miss Watson

The trucks and trailers rolled up our road in the early hours of the morning. A prominent 'Road Closed' sign went up at the fork, with a markered 'AHEAD' . Driving back from work one day, I drove down past the Road Closed AHEAD, nevertheless. A block down, a uniformed security guard stood right next to another Road Closed sign. I had to turn around on one of the side roads. Determined, I turned right back to the fork and drove up the other way on the circular road. Another Road Closed and guard greeted me after 4 blocks. But this one asked "Do you live a few houses up that way?"
"Err.... yes", though I lived many houses up that way, so to speak.
"Drive on," he waved me through. I crawled past all the trucks and trailers, now humming with activity in front of a house with a black box frame and curtain in front of its entrance, cranes with lights and whatnot, all the paraphernalia that a film crew have to transport wherever they go on location.
We may have visited Hollywood last year, but this year Hollywood came to our quiet suburban oasis. More to the point, Emma Watson (of Harry Potter movies fame) came to our neighborhood, filming for 'The Perks of Being A Wallflower', written by a former native of our township, now being made into a movie. He could have filmed anywhere he wished, but decided to pick his hometown as the location for the filming.
Rumors flew fast and thick. They were going to film in the high school. No, they were not going to use this high school because it looked too modern. They were filming in Baker park. No, they were filming on Hays Road. The crowning moment was M rushing home from the bus stop and proclaiming "They are going to be filming in front of C's house, right here on our street!". That was one rumor that turned out to be true, confirmed by the flurry of excited emails from the neighborhood email newsgroup.
M and S and their father spent one whole evening watching the film crew create a fake snow-on-the-ground scene at the location, along with a few dozen other star-struck onlookers, or just neighbors choosing to walk their dogs at the choice moment. Alas, no sign of Miss Watson that evening, though Logan Lerman (of Percy Jackson and the Olympians fame) and Katy Walsh (of Private Practice fame)were being filmed. ( Full Disclosure : I've seen neither of them on the big or little screen, never really heard of them till this movie.)
 The week over, the film crew trundled out of our neighborhood, moving shop to other locations. That was it, I thought, for the Emma Watson sighting hopes.  Until the buzz started again. They're filming at the King's restaurant, right across from the Sunoco gas station. The King's restaurant has nice desserts, though its menu and decor look like they still belong in the 1980's. An absolutely perfect setting for a story frozen in that time period, I'm sure. And, of course, I need to fill the gas tank, it's almost running on empty. So M and S peered through the windows while I filled up the tank. Nothing much to be seen, beyond a line of onlookers, assorted equipment and lighting fixtures. 'No, Miss Watson won't sign autographs. She's too shy to do that.' one of the security guards averred to the onlookers. Miss Watson showed up much later that evening and waved to her fans from a safe distance. (Heard via the local internet grapevine.)
Last Monday, I decided to brave my way uphill with M, they were filming again that day, and this time, Emma Watson was most certainly expected. We walked up, chatting with neighbors on our way and walked back, promising to get back there around 6 pm. A van drove up, just as we headed home, and I thought I caught sight of short chestnut hair and Ray-bans in the front passenger's seat. Could that have been Miss Watson?
We walked back after dinner and M was met by a group of acquaintances, all girls her age, squealing with delight as they waved Post-its with suspicious looking squiggles. 'Emma Watson stopped to say hi and signed these autographs for us!' M's face fell: "We should have gotten here earlier."
"Never mind, maybe you'll get to see her filming a scene."
The location was drenched with dazzling sunlight and the sun's angle was just so, blinding M. After an uncomfortable half hour, she gave up and we walked back as she was near tears over having missed Miss W.
We went back at 8:00pm. The waning light was perfect for them as they dolled up a house for a Halloween trick or treat scene, shot in about 5 takes with little kid actors costumed and running back and forth.  We did have a nice vantage point of the proceedings, sitting on the cool grass in front of C's house, and long pants, which ensured that we didn't spend as much time swatting away mosquitoes as did some of the be-shorted teens and tweens who had come to watch. A tiny white dog provided ample entertainment for those not inclined to keep their eyes glued to the set.
No Miss Watson, again.
M had cheered up considerably at having watched for a while, even if we didn't get a glimpse of the star.And to top it all, she came home the next day beaming, waving a sheet with the Emma squiggles...or rather, curlicues. She had managed to get an extra copy that C was gracious enough to give her. So now M has her  Emma Watson memento, even if we missed seeing her on location.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Metropolis and Broadway

"When does a city turn into a Metropolis? When nobody asks you where you came from, nor where you are going."

There are many kinds of anonymity, but the kind that comes from living in a Big, Very Large, Humongous City is a unique variety. It allows you to blend into the crowd, while still remaining your own person. with your own little idiosyncrasies and crazinesses. It offers you myriad chances to watch those of others.
Earlier, I lived in a town aspiring to cityhood, then  briefly in a City so ancient that she was beset constantly by her past, then in a city that is undecided as to whether she aspires to be a Metropolis. You are still asked where you come from, here, and are defined by your answer, whether you state India or Indiana.
We had paid a weekend visit to New York, staying in one of the hotels within a stone's throw of Newark airport. The sense of transience never strikes one so hard as the endless parade of people who flow through those lobbies. Baseball teams in full uniform, the dust of the field still on their trousers, weary polyester-suited flight crew with cabin luggage in tow, passengers yelling ostentatiously into their cell-phones as they conduct loud conversations with their relatives informing them that yes they have arrived safely, yes they were put on a later flight after missing their connection...
The goal wasn't to visit Newark, which is just a place that one stays in to avoid the hassle of big city hotel charges, miles and miles of dreary potholed roads that belong in some bleak dystopian urban blockbuster set in the 25th century, graceless warehouses and fields that grow rental cars. The goal was a visit to the Big Apple.
We headed out to Times Square one morning, armed with pre-reserved parking printouts. We had purchased tickets to watch one of Broadway's newest shows, a revival of the 60's musical 'How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying'. We knew next to nothing about it, except that this starred Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) in the lead role. It was a pick made by M and S, out of the smorgasbord of musicals populating Broadway. It was, we were all convinced, sure to be good.
The lobby rapidly filled up with people, about 1 hour away from the start of the show. A large lady dressed all in black, with gold beads and a fantastic flurry of feathers on her hat teetered in on 3 inch heels, accompanied by a gentleman in a beige jacket and matching fedora, with a muted ribbon and bow of its own. "My wife can't stand for too long.", he announced, perhaps hoping for an early entry into the main foyer. After a short whispered confabulation, the usher unlocked the door, slipped inside and brought out a small chair for the lady, who gratefully sank into its too-small cushion.
Half hour before the show, and the doors finally opened, letting in a horde of eager viewers, streaming up and down in search of their seats. We found ourselves perched precariously up in the stratospheric seats, which afforded a fairly decent view of the stage,  not so bad as to require opera-glasses to see the performers.
 The orchestra struck up an opening fanfare, and the star of the show rose up onto the stage of a rope and pulley contraption. He was a window-washer reading the book on How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, and proceeded, scene by scene to follow instructions gleaned from it as best as he could.
Lots of charm, colorful 60's era dresses and hair, dozens of dancers and singers on stage. It was quite the spectacle. Add to the fact that Daniel Radcliffe has a pretty decent singing voice, and does all his dance steps with great energy and enthusiasm, a nimble but diminutive contrast to the company boss, played by John Larroquette in his Broadway debut.  The audience, was rapt and applauded every number with much gusto.
Coming off the tail end of a nasty cold, I ended up with two coughing attacks during the performance, glared at by the tween in front, and hastily trotted down the stairs into a vacant ladies' room. "Are you all right?", asked a tall usher. "Nothing, just a cough attack, I will be fine." I missed two songs in the process, but when the entire show is filled with them, it probably didn't make for a huge loss. (And I now know why Hillary Clinton covered her mouth in this Situation Room photo. It wasn't an attack of nerves watching the 'Taking Out OBL' operation, she really was trying to prevent a cough attack.)
We didn't stay for long once the show ended, with a rousing song and dance number named Brotherhood, where J.B.Pierrepont Finch (Radcliffe) exhorts the bigwigs in the company to consider that the employees are its heart and soul, and cleverly winds up at the top of the pyramid, having been made Chairman of the Board. Not bad for a humble window-washer.
The doors opened out directly to the street, where a crowd milled around, hoping for a glimpse of the star of the evening. We hopped away to the nearest pastry shop for coffee and snacks before leaving on our long drive back to Pittsburgh.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tour de France - Part XIV

(A continuation of my long-neglected series of posts)

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Suji was quite thrilled. She hadn't expected it in the least, that Amma would allow her to finally go on a whole 2-day tour with her class. She had never been away from her family before. But now the big adventure loomed ahead, a trip to a farmhouse a few hours away from Paris, in distant Normandy, near a village whose name she did not yet know.
The tour bus ride started late in the afternoon. Suji lugged her little bag with clothes and toiletries for a one-night stay, and a brand-new dark blue sleeping bag to the bus, which engulfed those in its cavernous luggage bay. She hopped up the steps and nodded off to sleep as she watched the countryside fly by, woken up a little later by the teacher announcing. "We've arrived."
The building was not as ancient as she had pictured in her imagination, but it did have a high roof and attics to match. The interior was well lit, with a large comfortable living room,roomy kitchen and multiple stuffed chairs and sofas.The kids were all to sleep in the attic, using their sleeping bags to good purpose. Suji found a comfortable spot for hers and unrolled it in anticipation of a good night's sleep after dinner.
The evening started with all the kids being enlisted to help make apple pie and chocolat mousse. Suji was thrilled to help out with peeling apples for the pie, jostling at the kitchen table for space with some of her older and more experienced companions. It wasn't often that she got a chance to help out with kitchen chores. She watched in fascination as one of the 'cooks' carefully whipped up a light and frothy mix of cocoa, egg whites and sugar into a perfect peak that held its shape, and tasted delicious when done.
After a simple yet scrumptious dinner, she curled upstairs into her sleeping bag, which still smelled faintly of new polyester fill. The air was colder than she had anticipated, and it took more than a few minutes for the sleeping bag to warm up. She watched the rafters above her in the dark, her eyes soon accustomed to the minimal light that permeated the room. She could make out the shapes of her classmates, all slumbering without a movement, while she tried to think what the next day might be like. Sometime between watching the rafters and nearby mounds, she fell asleep, awakened only by the faint crowing of a rooster, somewhere in the distance.
She crept out of the bag and stood up, moving towards the window. The sky was still an inky blue, but the east had lightened considerably. She went back to her bag, fished out her toothbrush and headed to the bathroom- best to get the morning ablutions over with before most of the others woke.
Breakfast was a cacophony of children trying to talk as they munched on their croissants and drank large glasses of milk or juice. Suji didn't speak much, as she quickly gobbled hers. They were all to go on an expedition to the nearby village of la Ferrière sur Risle. They formed amorphous groups as they trotted off behind the teachers, chattering away in the bright sun.
The village was a tiny place, with a main street and a covered marketplace.  There was little to do, other than look at the quaint buildings and a little window-shopping, for Suji had not brought much cash with her to buy any souvenirs. The day passed all too quickly, as the morning gave way to a brighter afternoon.  They were to leave after lunch, retracing the route back to Paris, where Appa would be waiting to pick her up from the tour bus.
"Did you have a good trip?",  he asked anxiously, as Suji brought her little bag to the car.
"I had a wonderful time," she gushed, "I wish I could do it all over again."
And so she did, in her memories, time and again.
.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Healthy and Junky

S's axiom:"If they tell you that it's healthy, it will definitely taste terrible. If they tell you that it's junk, it's gonna be tasty.'

One marketing company decided to take the idea that health food ought to be marketed as junk food to the bank when approached by a Carrot Mega-processing firm to design an ad campaign to sell more of their carrots.
"Farhang and his colleagues unveiled storyboards with concepts for a series of winking, self-aware junk-food ads. One ad featured a baby-carrot-branded spray tan, endorsed by Snooki, the star of MTV's Jersey Shore. ("Doritos could potentially do something like that, with the cheese-dusted color of their product," Farhang explains.) In another, a sultry model, surrounded by billowing black silk, runs a carrot slowly across her lips as a voice-over purrs about indulgence -- think Dove chocolates. The best one seemed inspired by a Mountain Dew commercial. A skater dude rides a jet-powered shopping cart through a desert pass, dodging baby-carrot gunfire. Things blow up. There's a pterodactyl. "Extreme pterodactyl!" the voice-over yells.
"To have a great advertising idea, you have to get at the truth of the product," Farhang explains. "The truth about baby carrots is they possess many of the defining characteristics of our favorite junk food. They're neon orange, they're crunchy, they're dippable, they're kind of addictive."
So, here's to the junk-food like design of veggie bags, competing for the eyeballs of the jaded consumer along side the cool Cheeto Cheetahs and Rainbow colored neon cereal boxes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SATtitude Matters

 I've just realized that rather than encouraging my kids to turn off the TV every time, I should be encouraging them to turn it on. How else will my teen deal with essay questions like this on the SAT? - "“How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?”
S- "I didn't know what to make of the question- I don't watch any reality shows."
Me- "But we do. Consider that we watch the Food Channel chef competitions. Don't you realize that all those are scripted to a great extent?" He looked nonplussed, and I gave up trying to quarry any meaning from watching his expression. After all, he is a teenager who thinks that his parents are clueless.
The debate has gotten louder, with some parents crying foul for the precise reason that they have banned all TV viewing, insulating the kids from what is going on about them, convinced that TV is the agent of Satan in the house.
The essay question came with a brief explanatory prompt:"
“Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?"

Does one have to be an avid reality show or even TV fan to think of an answer to the above question? No.
We aren't TV Luddites, and while we don't stay glued to the TV to watch self-confessed reality shows like Survivor, we do watch a fair amount of other shows, like Iron Chef, The Daily Show, Antiques Roadshow. These are the other type which are carefully, lightly scripted to cater to an audience's expected narrative, even to the point of raising expectations and dashing them-the unreal "reality" shows. Even the politics/current affairs based shows aren't immune from this kind of scripting.

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A telling incident on the pervasiveness of modern media in teen culture. As my family walked past one of those teen mecca stores in the mall, we saw prominent display of a T-shirt with the following slogan and a print of Charlie Sheen , the current doyen of misbehavior: "If you aren't in Sheen's corner, then you must be a troll'.
I wondered aloud, "What exactly does that mean?", and was treated to a kindly explanation by S, who clarified the reference. "I think that it's probably the least funny slogan I ever saw on a T-shirt", I complained.
S laughed:"That's because you didn't get it."
And we all laughed, as I realized that my 'not getting' something that was supposed to be funny, was a joke in itself.

At least, I won't complain about an SAT essay prompt that asks for an analysis of celebrities gone bad. There is very little in that respect that I can shield my teen from reading about in this hyper-connected world that we live in.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mischievous Music

A brief tangential discussion in the comments on this piece by Omar Ali at Accidental Blogger reminded me of my college days.

The year was 1987, and I had just started off in my engineering college. I was becoming rather well-known for singing light/filmi music at various college events and was asked if I would like to participate in a 3-day workshop for prospective members of a new Kerala University youth choir. I agreed, figuring that I could manage to catch up on my course work without much difficulty, since we weren't too overloaded at that point.
It was a wonderful experience. Three days of working on music piece after piece, in many languages and styles. We started off with a purely melodic composition in the raga Dhanyasi, followed by a rousing version of the patriotic favorite 'Sare jahan se accha Hindostan hamara', a plaintive Malayalam song by ONV Kurup "Kezhuga priya naade", a folksy "Nalla kaalam varugudhu" composed by Subramania Bharathi, and a folk song in a Toda dialect.
I have never heard these songs sung again, after that workshop, though I'm sure that the choir must have performed those more than a few times. I couldn't continue with the choir membership because the next time the call came, I was knee-deep in exam preparations, too busy to participate.
But the memories, and snatches of the songs learned, remain. Film music director M.B.Sreenivasan, whose brainchild the choir was, actually directed our practice for a few sessions, before turning over the baton to a very young M. Jayachandran, currently one of the best-known Malayalam film music directors (who was as skinny as he is now heavy, in those days). And we learned a mysterious verse- an addition to 'Sare jahan se accha' that nobody had ever heard sung before, notably :

'e āb-rūd-e gangā! vuh din haiñ yād tujh ko?
utarā tire kināre jab kāravāñ hamārā"
(Translation from Wikipedia)
"O the flowing waters of the Ganges, do you remember that day
When our caravan first disembarked on your waterfront?"

Why would Iqbal talk about landing on the banks of the Ganges? What was this mysterious hint of , was it, maybe, arrogance, in a song extolling Hindustan as the best place in the world?
 All made clear today by Omar's explanation of Iqbal the poet and his philosophy:
"Iqbal was a very talented poet, probably the most talented Urdu poet of the 20th century but ideologically he was very confused. He came from a lower middle class family of neo-Muslims, who still had Hindu cousins and whose Islam was very orthodox and mullahistic. Being extremely intelligent and talented, he performed very well in college and people like Professor Arnold recognized his potential and encouraged him in the ways of modern European education. But he never lost a determination to use philosophy and poetry to justify his core beliefs. While a lot of his poetry (and especially his Persian poetry, with which I am not too famliar, but about which I hear from Persian speaking friends) is universal and uplifting; in his Urdu poetry he became more and more Jihadist with age. Probably because that is what got the loudest cheers from his fans. In any case, he shamelessly promoted (and possibly believed, which is worse) the notion that Islam constitutes a kind of unique world-altering, world shattering forward move in human history, completely and definitively superior to any other religion or ideology, and he proceeded to write some very fanciful odes to the conquering heroes of the golden age. Never mind that most of those heroes were no different from any other king, adventurer or conqueror of the age. He was also committed to Islamic supremacism and opposed secularism (at least when it suited him to do so...its hard to say what his real beliefs were or even if he had any in this matter)....anyway, it is no surprise that the martyrdom certificates issued by the Pakistani Taliban have one of his verses written on them...every madressa i have ever seen in Pakistan is adorned with verses of Iqbal.
I am being a little unfair, but not much. The Sindhi leader GM Syed criticized Iqbal by saying that in this day and age, we expect our greatest intellectuals to be humanists and universalists. They are not parochial and bigoted. They dont regard any one race or ideology as the answer to all problems because they have a deep sense of the almost tragic oneness of mankind. We still have poets who write martial music or nationalist anthems or promote their own religious group over all others, but we also regard them as second-raters. Iqbal is too talented to be called second rate, but philosophically, he falls in that second-rate category.."

As a person, M.B.Sreenivasan always struck me as having a rather mischievous air about him, especially as he regaled the choir with little anecdotes about the songs, even in the limited time he spent with our group. He never did completely explain the import of the words that he tuned, just baldly stating that it wasn't sung typically, and that it was a chance of a lifetime to learn how to sing them.

Ah the subversiveness of having a group of green-behind-the-ear students singing one of the most arrogant lines extolling the conquering invaders from the north! He must have had a good laugh.
But it was a lovely tune, nevertheless.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Storm after the Calm

It never fails. After a winter with several hyperventilating newscasters gushing over the Mother of All Snowstorms, which ends up just being just extra heavy rainfall, and  legions of anxious Pittsburghers look like nitwits for having believed all the hype and ransacked the nearest grocery stores for bread, milk and toilet paper.
A big one strikes without warning or fanfare. Monday's snowfall snuck into town like a thief on padded socks, and left in a huge churning morass of slushy mess, with abandoned cars and trucks by the dozen on unsalted roadways and parkways.
It's just a little rain, I thought, as I drove out to collect M from a sleepover. It was just going to be a wet day and evening. Until I looked outside amazed at the brown deck now covered with a layer of white pellets. The white stuff was coming down in bigger clumps. A couple of hours later, and it was still coming down, now about 2 inches.
I reached for the phone to alert my husband- he's sometimes so busy on the phone that he will not turn and look out of his huge glass windows. "Don't delay leaving work for too long- the roads are likely to be nasty. It's been 2 hours with no sign of salting trucks, out here. Everything's turning white including the roads."
Three hours later, the desultory skeleton crew had been by twice on our roads, but with barely any effect, as the snow continued to fall. The radar picture showed a storm system determinedly centred over our area. This was going to stay in place for the next several hours, one could tell.
The garage door opened, and closed. My husband clambered up the steps, a huge grin plastered on his face at having made it home in one piece. "I nearly steered into another car near Carnegie. The roads were so bad that I took the long way home, just to avoid the side roads." Well, at least he was safe home now.
The next morning showed a grand total of 7 inches, though I'm sure that our driveway had at least 9. The lay of the land guarantees that snow drifts pile up against the garage doors, sometimes as high as 10 inches. Time to break out the snowblower for the first time this winter.
And silly me, here I thought that Punxsutawney Phil's prediction this year of an early spring meant no more late winter snowstorms! Well, there's always tomorrow, where there is already a flood watch out for melting snow from the storm, followed by temperatures blazing up into the 40s, so that all the snow on the ground melts in double-quick time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Laundry List

M had her ' laundry assignment' from school a couple of weeks ago. Their Home Economics (or whatever is the current PC term) teacher sent them home with printed notes on how to sort their clothes by color, put them in appropriate load sizes in the washer, selecting water temperatures and wash cycles, detergents, etc. I promptly ignored the whole thing and taught her my method.
  1. Sort into two piles. Darks, lights. Inbetweens can go in either, so long at the two piles are roughly the same size. Don't bother with wasting your time checking garment labels for cycle instructions.
  2. Maximize the load (i.e. wait as many days/weeks as it takes to fill up your basket, so that it weighs approximately 25% of your body weight.)
  3. Do not, I repeat, do not wash any cotton Indian clothes in the washer. Those have to be handwashed even after the 10th wash, because the colors are guaranteed to run for the lifetime of the garment. Yes, the running will outlast the Energizer Bunny. (In case you ever need to wash it, remember the following tips: Add a handful of salt to cold water and soak the cotton clothes in it for 5-10 minutes. Carefully apply bar soap or mild detergent (Fels Naptha or similar) to only the stained/sweaty parts and squeeze by hand gently till the stain is gone. Rinse again in cold water, and air dry. Iron with high heat when dry, applying spray starch if desired to retain stiffness. )
  4. If the Indian clothes are of polyester, they may be tossed in with the regular darks.
  5. Check the washer for old moldy unattended clothes. If there are any, toss in a cupful of vinegar, run a Rinse only cycle, transfer to dryer before putting in your clothes.
  6. Pour the detergent in as the water is filling (regular cycle, for the most part), arrange the clothes around as evenly as you can. ( We do not want the washer hopping its way out of captivity in the basement to the curb.It is our tethered slave for these last 12 years, at least.)
  7. Transfer clothes to the dryer about 30 minutes later
  8. Follow 5., if you forget 7. and remember a couple of days later.
  9. The dryer operation is simple. Check the screen for lint, remove it if there is any. Toss in the dryer sheet with the clothes, select a Normal dry cycle and press the start button.
  10. And please, for God's sake, take the clothes up, fold them and put them away instead of letting them molder in piles like your brother does. (Not that I have much hopes of this getting done, but it's never too late to start the nagging.)
I recall a few years ago that at one of the PTA meetings, a parent suggested replacing these 'useless' Home Economics classes on laundry,sewing and cooking with computer and robotics classes, to keep the kids up with the latest in educational gizmos and technology.
I'm so glad that it didn't catch on. At the very least, these kids will learn some essential skills that will come in handy when they go off to college.
I was already well-trained in handling washing the family laundry from the days when we underwent a temporary maid shortage, so having to do all the chores on my own on moving to the US didn't faze me at all, unlike many newcomers who have been used to dhobis and maidservants doing this.
But times are changing, even in India, as washing machines (though not dryers) make inroads into the urban milieu and as some city-dwellers have jumped joyously on the concept of frequenting laundromats, a relatively new offering in metropolitan cities there.
"Mr. Chaudhary, 22, works in back-office services for a big American bank. He works long, long hours and lives alone in a small bachelor flat. “My washing maid did not come the last two weeks so it was really a bad situation,” he said, with the pained expression of a man over-acquainted with his socks.
Tired of hassling with the renegade maid, on Saturday he resolved to do his own wash, and tracked down the gleaming glass storefront of QuickClean in a narrow alley of a working-class neighbourhood popular with students.
An hour later, he had paid about $3.25, been talked through the workings of a small bank of stainless-steel machines, and was leaving with a bag of fluffy if lumpily folded clothes."
Lumpily folded clothes-that reminds me that I have a pile of laundry waiting for my attention, and I need to get M to do another load of her laundry.Off I go.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Watching Period Soap Opera

With the kids sitting right beside you, of course. It's an experience not to be missed. We are huge costume drama fans here (i.e. M, S and me. My husband isn't so enthusiastic.), and we never miss the Masterpiece Classics on PBS, having run the gamut from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens to  the current craze : the brand-new Downton Abbey. Set in the years preceding World War I, it showcases the Edwardian era and follows the vagaries of the Earl of Grantham and his family.
Episode I had a shocker, which I mercifully wasn't called upon to explain to either of the kids. They simply seemed to have taken it for granted that one of the characters, a gay footman, gave another male character a lingering kiss.
Neither did I have to explain a lovemaking scene in the the second episode. The kids were running around in circles playing laser tag with a friend, and didn't even see the scenes in question. I merely had to wave it off with an airy "Mary was in love with that guy, but he died suddenly." when M stopped by for an explanation later.
At the conclusion of Episode 4, the last in the series, all I had to explain away was an induced miscarriage by a villainous maid, and voila, difficult explanations ended. At least, till the next season appears, probably a year from now, given that it is still in production and scheduled to be filmed only this March.
"What did you think of it?", I asked M, with some trepidation.
"I liked it very much."
"Would you want to see it continued?"
"Yes."
"Then you'll have to wait till next year."
"So long!"
"Well, it does have much better production values than your average Mega-serial. It takes time to set those up, unlike the easy setups in Arasi" (Another favorite that they acquired a taste for when they last visited India.)
Come to think of it, it does have the typical mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law antipathy, scheming villains (in the form of plotting servants), good-as-gold characters, not-so-good heros and heroines, surprise twists and hooks that characterize any soap opera world-wide. Just because it is filmed on location in an actual castle and features period costumed characters doesn't make it any different from the overall mind-tugging storylines that regularly enthrall TV viewers all over the world, whether it be Mexican telenovelas or Kollywood Mega-serials or Saas-Bahu dramas with bejewelled be-saried overly made-up matrons and their daughters-in-law.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

More Tagore, More Music

This one comes with another little story. I had been sifting through some online music service, looking for more Rabindrasangeet songs by Suchitra Mitra, but chanced upon this one by Kavita Krishnamurthy. I was initially put off, wondering at why they chose to tune it to a typically South Indian raga, until I chanced upon this earlier rendition by  Kanika Banerji and realized that Tagore had originally intended for it to be sung in Carnatic raga Simhendramadhyamam.
The story behind this choice comes from this anecdote about Savitri Krishnan, one of what must have been the few South Indian students to go all the way to Santiniketan for their studies.
"A large part of the interview deals with the Carnatic tunes Tagore picked up from Savitri Devi to compose some of his most well-known songs. Even at the age of seventy, I think she did a great job in rendering the Tamizh and the Bengali versions.

There were two songs that she sang. The Bengali counterparts are "Basanti hey Bhuvanomohini" and "Bedona ki bhashaey re". I have cropped out the Bengali conversation from the interview and retained only the English words she used and the songs she sang (both in Tamizh and Bengali).

I have also added another famous Tagore song "Baaje karuno shurey". This was sung by Smt. Kanika Bandyopadhyay during Tagore's Birth Centenary Celebrations in 1961. The original Tamizh(sic) version "Nidu charanamooley" in the recording below was sung by Swagatalakshmi Dasagupta (1999)."
That brought me full circle to the original Thyagaraja krithi in Telugu (not Tamil as mentioned above) that was the  inspiration for Baje Karuno shure, sung by Rabindrasangeet expert Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta , which she has sung quite creditably well. She is trained in Hindustani singing, and the influence shows in her singing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Caged Bird

One of my mother's first blog entries was this reminiscent article about how we acquired our pet parrot Sankaran. My sister, as a kid, wrote a little story based on an imagined conversation between Sankaran and a wild parrot outside, that was published several years ago in a popular children's magazine.
Today, as I flipped aimlessly through the offerings of an online digital library, I came across this poem from Tagore's translation of  "The Gardener", and was struck by how similar it was to the subject of my sister's tale. She had no exposure to Tagore's writings at that age, but came by her story from simple observation of our parrot and his calling out to wild parrots outside.

"THE tame bird was in a cage, the free bird was in the forest.
They met when the time came, it was a decree of fate. 

The free bird cries, " O my love, let us fly to wood." 
The cage bird whispers, " Come hither, let us both live in the cage." 

Says the free bird, " Among bars, where is there room to spread one's wings ? " 
"Alas," cries the cage bird, "I should not know where to sit perched in the sky." 

The free bird cries, " My darling,sing the songs of the woodlands." 
The cage bird says, " Sit by my side, I'll teach you the speech of the learned." 

The forest bird cries, " No, ah no ! songs can never be taught." 
The cage bird says, " Alas for me,I know not the songs of the woodlands." 

Their love is intense with longing,but they never can fly wing to wing. 
Through the bars of the cage they look, and vain is their wish to know 
each other. 

They flutter their wings in yearning,and sing, " Come closer, my love ! " 

The free bird cries, " It cannot be, I fear the closed doors of the cage." 
The cage bird whispers, " Alas, my wings are powerless and dead." 
 
Here is Suchitra Mitra's rendition of the Rabindra Sangeet version of the above song.


*Suchitra Mitra, a longtime exponent of Rabindra Sangeet, died earlier this month, at the age of 86.