Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My days as a turtle...

3 months ago, when I was getting ready for the trip, I was the least bit excited about it. I wasn't looking forward to it in the way others do. I wasn't making plans. I wasn't looking ahead. My brother's wedding was in a month, and I felt a little dead inside, for all these non-feelings. My siblings would message like crazy talking about the little things and the big things about the wedding, and people, and clothes and plans. I would participate, but halfheartedly at best.

Sometimes, I feel this is the pitfall of being in the US, where it's so quiet and there is no dearth of personal space. When there is so much of both, I tend to recede inwards into my shell and start getting comfortable there. And any interactions with the outside world feels like an intrusion. It takes effort to even hold a conversation on some days. The only energy I have, I conserve for the boys and what they need from me on a daily basis. These are the days of my existence as a turtle, slow to take on the world, happiest inside the comforts of its hard back, where the din and the roar of everything external, is but a faint hum on the inside.

Of course, not all days are like this. There are days of complete social engagement, interaction, liveliness, gregariousness and I realise the potencies of my own charm, when my tongue feels more fluid in conversation, eager to please and eager to evoke smiles, when I feel inspired to take on bigger slices of life and living, when everything around me feels like poetry, when my own connection with the Universe feels like a constant flow of music. Where I whisper my longings, and it returns it, with interest and dividends attached. All feels well. Everything feels right.

Earlier, I would go all out and express this side of myself to the fullest, to everyone in my life and enjoy the beauty of their happiness with me. But when came the time to return to the shell, it would also confuse, confound and hurt the people around me. Many could not understand this side of me. Those were the days, even I could not understand this side of myself. The highest confusion was mine. But when you go through these cycles enough number of times, and sense the pattern that belongs to it, you slowly begin to accept that you come inbuilt like this. The high and the low. The extrovert and the introvert. The doer and the observer. I actually do not know any other way to be.

There is a saying which I love....Argue for your limitations, and you get to keep them. Soon I began to own this statement. I so completely accepted this side of myself without question and without a doubt that there might something wrong with me, that I would explain it to anyone who took the time or the courage to ask. This is how I am. And it's not personal....I would say. And that was the simple and very convenient truth.

As I matured with age, I began to rein myself in a little during my upswings. I would feel like calling a dozen friends and prodding them out of their own little shells, but I would desist where possible. It was hard, but perhaps simpler to avoid the resultant confusion, when the period ended, as it ultimately would. I started channeling my joy more to my children, to music, to writing. With a few more cycles of maturity, I began extending that tempered treatment even to my periods of silence. I tried not to go so deeply into my shell, that it told on everyone around me. I tried to maintain a string of balance and a small thread of connection to the outside world. Some evenness between this mood and that.

Today, I think this is where I am at. I am very comfortable in my own skin. Confidence teaches you that. That it is okay not to have to please everybody, all the time. That it is okay to live, knowing that someone might be miffed at you. I think you can train people on what to expect from you, and train them to keep those expectations low. In return, I afford, very generously, the same courtesies. I don't expect return phonecalls. It is okay, if you visit the country and don't make time to visit me. It is okay if you sound dull and listless to me on the phone or don't feel like talking. I don't ask for explanations to things. Or justifications. It is unnecessary. I actually, secretly rejoice in these moments, because it gives me a chance to give that full and complete freedom to someone to be who they want to be at that point in time. I love this declaration of individuality of a person. And I love that they can feel comfortable enough to be that way with me.

Isn't that kind of freedom the most beautiful thing we can ever give another person? Free them from our expectations. Give them wings to fly off into their own sunsets and sunrises. And still be there, without judgement, when they come back, wanting to enjoy your smile and a word. That is the beginning of friendship...

Friday, August 09, 2013

Thanni o thanni!

When you are a young boy on a vacation in Chennai and staying at your grandfather's home, which is not part of a big building co-op, but one of two apartments in a building...you have the opportunity to see a thanni lorry in action, on a regular basis.

On the appointed day, you brave a hot sun and wait for it patiently with your grandfather, as he directs them through the lanes and bylanes of suburban Chennai. You are even prepared to walk half a kilometre with him to find the lost lorry and bring it home. You recognise the exact beep of its horn and the sound of its wheels as it comes screeching to a stop and then backs as close as possible into your lane.

As the workers set up, you eagerly look into the tank on the ground, just to see how all the water has been sucked dry by the motor pump, just an hour earlier, and deposited into the overhead tanks, in readiness for the new delivery. And when your mother arrives on the scene, you show it to her as well.

You watch as the man sets up the pipes, connecting one to the other to make it long enough to reach the tank. You watch as he secures them snugly with strips of rubber tubing. Rustic, but effective nonetheless.

You watch in fascination as the water gushes out in this bulging arc, pouring neatly into its designated slot. Water has a rhythmic quality which soothes and entrances. And you let it. Your body goes still as you observe its fluidity.

But it requires patience as well. And waiting, as you shift from foot to foot. But there is nothing that could take you away from there, just then. Nothing.

In the middle of it all, the man asks for some water for his young son who is riding with him that day. You eagerly carry the green plastic bottle, rush up the stairs, so as not to miss even a second more of action than you have to, place your demands to the kitchen, and rush back downstairs with it. While your mother peeps from the balcony above, wondering which 'boy' it is for.
She sees the man pouring the cool water down his son's throat, and she smiles at the simple love of it all.

She comes down to watch for the rest of the time, and even asks for a picture of you with the man and the boy, but you shy away at the last minute.
By this time, the tank is almost full to the brim. Water is frothing as it swirls inside. And with just a flick of the switch, the man cuts the supply, and air is silent. He empties out all the remaining water from the pipes, before disengaging the two and folding them into circles back into the lorry. The rubber strips come off and are tossed carelessly in the back among the pipes and you wonder if it will not fly off in the breeze of the open road.

Payment is made and the transaction is complete. The man waves goodbye and starts the engine. And there goes the lorry, down the road. Bye Bye Metro Water vandi. Thank you for stopping by. We will see you in another 4 days after these 8000 litres!

You go back upstairs, excited to tell your brother everything that you just saw. Your mother's thoughts, however, are all of that little boy and how thrilling it must be for him! To ride with his father on the Eid day off from school, taking to the roads, driving to people's homes to give them a part of their sustenance!! Will these not be the memories he grows up with? Will not some part of his boyhood dreams be coloured with these tinges? Just as the memories of her little boy will be defined by some of these very moments...when he stood on a dusty road, under the swaying breeze of the coconut trees, beneath the azure sky of a bright morning....waiting for the water to come.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The exacting art of making sabudana khichdi!

[Dedicated to my Periamma, who taught me how to make the 'as close to perfect as possible' sabudana khichdi. And through it, a desire to strive for excellence, at least in one dish of the vast canvas of cooking!]

Making sabudana khichdi is an exacting process as I have come to realise. One that has many variants, all of which need to fall into place for it to come into its own.

Right from the way it is soaked to how much of water it takes in, to the amount of oil used to cook it, to the number of peanuts you measure out to powder and flavor it, the steps have to be both precise as well as bended to flexibility, should the measure of exactness go awry at any point. And in this, it has my full and complete admiration. For something that requires so much of your stillness, concentration and presence, is something that is worthy of meditating upon. And I shall do just that!

I owe my love of this dish to my Aunt in Pune, who has understood every nuance and mood of this grain to master it so adeptly, and wields it to satisfy every sense of the palate. In a fit of self-confidence that can only come from the rushes of youth, I thought I could easily replicate her style and I made it at home. Over and over. And it was a washout every single time. I have lost count of how many packs of sabudana, I would have wasted in the process. And it never struck me that these failures could be turned on their head and fried as vadas. Finally, there came a day when after sampling yet another one of her perfectly churned out batches of khichdi, I deigned to come down from the high horse of my own independent study of it and asked for the secret. How do you make it Periamma, I mouthed rather coolly, when every part of me was literally begging inside, grappling to understand where the key to all my struggles lay.

Secret 1 : With the very first step she laid out, I realised my mistake. You soak the grain in just enough water to cover it. No more, no less. More makes it soggy. Less makes it hard and chewy. Also, different varieties need different hours of soaking. The ones I get in Chicago can easily do with the overnight soak. The ones in India, need just about an hour.

In this it is about balance. That perfect walk along the thin pole...with not even a balancing stick to hold on to. Either you get it right, or you don't!

Secret 2 : This needs lots of peanuts powdered to this semi coarse consistency. And also lots of oil to cook it in. So it can be the reward after a period of healthful eating. Or you can toss all such notions aside and cook it every other week.

In this, it is about excess and plentiful excess. Every time you feel it getting sticky, you add more oil without even batting an eyelid. And just when you think 20 peanuts is enough for those 2 cups, you add another 10 more into the mixie, and then another 5. Maybe just 2 more. 1 last?

Secret 3 : You need to mix in the peanut powder to the grains, before you cook it. It may work the other way too, but from all my repeated practise sessions, this works better.

In this it is about eccentricity. Why add the peanuts just a second later into the pan, when you can do it beforehand, and let the grains and the nuts become better acquainted? Why wait and delay the inevitable???!!!

Secret 4 : It needs careful monitoring over a low flame, with frequent stirring to make sure the undersides don't get sticky and clump together. And in the end, if its gets sticky anyways, let it cool in the breeze of the fan. The grains stop banding together so fiercely.

In this, it is about TLC. And micro-management. The kind where you don't take your eyes off of it even for a second, and even when you do it, it is done as a covert operation, before it develops the smarts to figure out the second's worth of neglect.

Secret 5 : A dash of lemon juice at the very end works wonders in bringing all the flavours together. As does, a big bunch of coriander greens.

In this it is about the pompadour touch. That little zing, that flair for the tart!

Suffice it to say, I have had enough intimate conversations with this process, to unearth all its secrets (or so I think! Foolish me!!!). For I have made several worthy batches of khichdi. Both the boys like it and if I space it out well in the course of a month, don't object to it in the least.

It makes for a hearty breakfast, an easy dinner option and can be a party hit, if the stars have aligned well in the charts that day! Making it each time is an act of mystery, where even the weight of my history with it will not guarantee success. It is thrilling because I never quite know what will come out at the end. Even if one step goes off the beaten track, it can become a slushy disaster or a clumpy, chewy mess.

But on the days it behaves itself and lends complicity to me in full and complete abandon and kindness....those are the days of true happiness. And today is one of those days!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Pillaiyar Suzhi of my day!

In one of the lanes of Chennai's Boat Club Road, at a junction where two perpendicular lanes meet, under a shade of a tree and in a nook by the wall of one of those big Boat Club homes, sits this little Guardian. I am guessing the location of the house at that very spot in the confluence of the two lanes, and all those colliding energies, dictated that He, the remover of obstacles, be installed, ever protecting, ever benevolent, ever watchful.

Many walkers stride by Him every morning. Some even sprint. But most are lost to His presence, engrossed as they are in conversations, and the ones in their own heads...or to the music from the pair of wires that peeks not so discreetly from the sides of their faces, carrying them far into another orbit. And I was one such walker. A walk for me meant, listening to Hindi songs instead of bird song. And measuring my stride on the road, to noticing if the trees swayed or if a flower previously in bud, had bloomed.

I knew, as one often knows, without overtly knowing, that there was a little temple in that corner, but would surreptitiously walk past it, wary as I was of public exhibitions of devotion. And it becomes public and hence feels like an exhibition, because in India, everyone openly stares, and sometimes don;t back down even if you have caught them in the act. So I would not even take the trouble to peek at Him, quickening my footsteps as I rounded that corner.

For a while, He bore it graciously. This rejection. This contrived ignoring of His presence. But one day He had had enough, it seemed. For one day, I walked as ever down that path, a slight tension building in me, as I battled with inclination, leaning towards resistance, and just as I came within a few yards of Him and took the curve that led down the opposite lane, I turned my head and looked. He made me. It was not planned, it was not calculated. It was sudden, un-thought and unhindered for  that split second before my mind could pipe up and say 'no'!

And I saw Him. Black against the white. Dots of orange and red in the daintiest places, adding to the allure of that beautiful twin chandan-kumkum setting down his trunk. An artist's lotus lead up to Him, who sat on the carved one. Yellow and blue in the colors of His gopuram. Doors open, with a lock....for how precious is He and can it ever be measured, but only treasured?! A single flame flickering at His feet. Freshly bathed, freshly clothed, and bedecked in flowers. And I looked. Oh how I looked!

I still couldn't bring myself up to fold my hands in greeting, or close my eyes in reverence of His form, so I stared at him simply. No prayer from memory rose to my lips, but I silently said 'Hello' and then '...how beautiful are you.' Those. exact. words.

I could feel someone's eyes on me so I looked to the side and found the watchmen of the building, staring. "Can I take a picture?" I asked softly, pointing to my phone. "Sure madam," they said, watching me with open curiosity now. I felt silly and touristy, but I wanted Him on my phone. So, throwing out all my sense of self, I faced him in a straight line and clicked two times. Satisfied with the result on my phone, I mouthed a 'thank you' to them, which made me even more of an oddity in their eyes, and they probably had something to say as they watched my retreating back.

Before I knew it, the earphones had come back on, and birdsong was lost again. But awakened, by this little encounter, I did look more at the trees. And in the recent idyllic weather of Chennai, they danced their happiness. And above my music, I heard the dry swoosh swoosh  of the brooms, as maids swept out the front yards of the dry leaves that carpeted the morning ground. At times, I looked upon the faces of my fellow walkers, not fearing to make some eye contact. And I felt the spirit of darshan there as well.

And every time I rounded that curve, and I rounded it three times this morning, I made it a point to look at Him and have Him look into me. I allowed myself that moment of liberation. And for just a split of a second, I let my eyes close lightly, as the faint traces of devotion took over...

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Of becoming an arthur...

How does one become an author? Is it a journey that can be charted, with fixed points to mark the way? Or is it from a string of moments that blend, one into the other....seemingly disparate at first, but all leading to a point of culmination....into something that begs to be remembered, to be captured, to be posterized?

This is a question which does not truly need an answer because it is only a means to talk about something that's come about in Winkie's world. That he is now writing, and furiously. That his love for Harry Potter is expressing itself into the words of a sequel that he uses to indulge further, into this pleasurable fantasy land or witchcraft and wizardry. That it takes up where the last book left off , with Harry all grown up and with children and quite unaware that a new threat is rising....that Voldemort actually has ancestors, who might want to assume the mantle of his legacy of terror and destruction. Enough said, else I might give the whole plot away.

Suffice it to say that for 30 minutes every morning before school, and for 30 minutes after, and for every snatch of 5 or 10 minutes in between, Winkie works on his novel. And has earned himself the title of arthur from his brother, who with just that one word has shown that parts of his babyhood still remain with him. That all is not grown up. :)

As a fond, clucking mother, I feel like indulging in those little vapour moments, seemingly disparate in their connections that may have secretly led to this point, when the torrent of words is flowing. I think back to his days of self publishing books....of Indra and the rain story. And how many a staples were used to bind together that torrential shower. I think back to a writing workshop he attended last summer, with a friend, who believes that words are fun and can dance at your fingertips, should you make the effort to make friends with them. And infuses her students with a love for it. There must have been some of that still in him. I think of the fun writing class he attends every week before school. And how in the very first class, they had an idea relay, where one child wrote a sentence, and the next child built on it and so on, until they had this really zany story at the end, where everything crazy was suddenly possible, with all their collective ideas.

I think of my own story writing attempts from a week ago, just in time for Halloween, and how he was fascinated with how I had done it on Word, with underlines and bold fonts, and he wanted to use Word too....to write his own story. Ah!!! That is the point that set it all in motion, giving everything else hiding under the soil a chance to germinate. And how he literally took off from there...how making the time to write was effortless, because there was passion preceding it. When you love something, you will make the effort for it, come hell or high water. It's as simple as that. 

As simple as it was for us to come up with a pen name for him. Jaggery Bigsy Jenkins. 

Jaggery...because I had nicked him that a few weeks ago. To remind him to go back to the sweet version of his self, whenever he felt very little like it. The condition was that every time I called him Jaggery, he would have to smile, no matter what. And he does.

Bigsy...because he's the bigger boy of the house....by virtue of birth order, and other things too. 

Jenkins...because it goes with the Jaggery before it. Say it together and it makes sense. 

The Bigsy was an insert for middle name status. Together, they create quirk and interest. In my head, at least. :)

And so....the arthur writes. While I tussle with complex thoughts of how I will go through the editing process. And weigh needless, but still fun questions of whether his script should be untouched for publishing, or he be exposed to all the processes involved in the writing schema. Because, Christmas is coming around and I would like it make a gift of it for him. Because he anticipates being done in a month. Because it will be fun to see a title to your name. Because, it would make a cute coffee table book. And because every arthur, no matter how small, deserves to be in print, for the sheer courage of attempt and initiative.