Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Baul's Song

It's Christmas time in Calcutta, everyone is on holiday and making the most of it.  Even the non-resident Bengalis come home to visit old haunts.  Shops and restaurants are packed, loudspeakers are blaring, streets are filled with cars and pedestrians.

In the midst of all this, I feel truly blessed to have our local Baul visit every Sunday morning.  He walks down the street, playing his simple string instrument and singing his soulful songs.  Hardly anyone listens but he always stops in front of our family house, where he knows someone or the other will emerge.  And if I am there, I always do.  I love listening to these down to earth songs with mystic roots.  Songs which remind us that God must be searched for (and discovered) within our own hearts, by ourselves.

Bauls- the wandering mystic minstrels of Bengal used to travel from village to village, bringing these messages and their wonderful music to the common man.  Each village would provide them with food and shelter and take care of their needs.  Now things have changed, the Bauls have to fend for themselves and their travel is restricted.  They are hardly seen in urban settings, except for a few high profile ones, who perform periodically in concerts.  These performances are quite powerful but they often lack the spontaneity and simplicity found in a more natural setting.

This time I was fortunate enough to have my cell phone with me while rushing down to hear the Baul.  And so I made my first recording of one of his songs, the link is given below.  There was plenty of neighbourhood action at the time of the recording (and my hand finally shook when my little son made a beeline for the road).  People were coming and going, the driver was revving the car, the dhobi arrived with his bundle of freshly ironed clothes, an irate crow was demanding his biscuit breakfast and so on.  But the Baul was lost in his music and in his world - which is as it should be - and it reminded me to search for what gives my life meaning and pursue it without distraction (or at least attempt to)!


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sights and Sounds of Calcutta

Calcutta it always will be, especially at Christmas!  Busy, bustling, bursting at the seams...  A way of life and a spirit very different from other Indian cities - but as everywhere, some things have gone, some have changed and some continue, almost the same over time.

The pastry shop Flurys, now Marwari acquired but as efficiently geared for Christmas as it used to be, with the same eclectic cactus collection on the pavement outside.

Nahoums is still alive, the last Jewish bakery, with the last of its descendants running it and churning out their famed cakes, pastries and puffs.

Jazz has not been so fortunate, with the passing of the much loved jazz guitarist Carlton Kitto.  Wondrous music played in a down to earth manner with little fuss and a lot of happiness.


Happiness- also embodied in steaming cups of Darjeeling tea, meltingly tender sandesh (a sweet) in banana leaf packets, dazzling orange marigolds, delicately woven sarees.  A fragile but still existing world.

Closer to home is the sprawling Gariahat market, with its mounds of fresh fish and seasonal vegetables.  We walk down in the mornings, and decide on our menu for the day.

My favourite tonic (that apparently only die hard enthusiasts still partake of) - tender bitter neem leaves with fresh haldi (turmeric).  I have seen this combination only in Calcutta.

Sunday mornings are unforgettable, not because I indulge in jalebis and kachoris (a favourite fried and heavy breakfast) but because the local Baul singer comes by, singing incredible songs of faith, love and remembrance.

Each time we visit, we leave with incredible memories.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Christmas In The Air

We usually do not celebrate Christmas, but it's always very much a part of our lives, for it is in the air, everywhere greeting us.

This year, with my son just beginning to learn music in school, I get to hear Christmas songs at home when he returns.

My husband, who is in Delhi, has ordered some of the most delicious Christmas cake and pudding (from IIC) which he will bring back.  Thus I have saved my Christmas cake recipe for next year.

We have a tree in our little garden, but as we will be in Kolkata over Christmas this year, I have kept the decorations for next year (when my son will be older and able to reach the top branches).  This is prudent because our garden is full of leaping monkeys, inquisitive squirrels and nosy ravens right now.

Christmas in Kolkata has its own charm, even if Park street is too crowded to walk down, even though the old jazz haunts are now hard to find, even if our favourite traditional bakery closed its doors last year.  Christmas is still Christmas, and spending it with family and friends is always special.

Here are two old versions of my son's favourite Christmas songs -

Rudolph the red nosed reindeer-

Jingle bells (apparently the first song to be played in outer space, which gives it an added appeal, in my son's eyes)-

And here is my favourite song (which was also Elvis's favourite Christmas song, as sung by him)-

Blue Christmas-

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Listening To My Spirit

The end of the year is just a calendar reminder to stop and think of one's resolution for the year to come.  It's something I always like to do and the best resolutions are the ones that don't wait for the year to end before being implemented!

Sometimes, it's not very easy to think of one particular thing, but there are times when a specific thought slips itself into my mind effortlessly, as has happened this year.

This year has been marked by great changes in our lives, and  for me, the most important, through the ups and downs, has been the expression of the spirit (as I perceived it, in myself and others).  I usually refrain from dwelling overly on personal details but have decided to do so, for this blog.

As I write, my son, Nayan, weaves his way through nursery school, with optimism and determination; qualities that I hope will serve him well through his life.  He is learning how to deal with things he doesn't understand, things that scare him or worry him.  As we ourselves are.

An unexpected death in the family left us grappling with pain, wondering how to deal with it and what to make of death - and life.  I am grateful that my mother-in-law lived an active and happy life almost upto the end, and left with very little suffering.  I am grateful also for parts of her which live on in spirit- in the things she did and, in some way, in Nayan.

This year, my husband found an opportunity to extend his scientific creativity (an essential part of his life) to do some of the research that he was not able to easily do in his academic life (which continues alongside).  He has started a company to design new flu vaccines.  This is a big leap of faith that appears to be leading to much satisfaction (and fatigue)!  It would not have been possible without his business partner, ex-student and old friend, Gautham, who complements, supports and sustains the company.  They are the only two employees, as of now!

As for myself, life has taken me down yet another untraversed path.  I'm just beginning to pick up the threads and feel my way through.  I have a new routine (at least on school days) that I had not really planned in any way.

My yoga practice has restarted, in a slow but definite way.  I sense the presence of my yoga teachers and something leads me on, one small step at a time.

At the start of the year, I had a head full of ideas for books and I wrote one (a children's book called 'Marco Polo Gets A Job!').  As months went by, most of the other ideas evaporated, leaving me in blankness.  Blankness is not something I despair of or dread, it usually indicates a period of shifting and refocussing of energy.  I just let things be.

Finally, this month, I got the feeling that the most fulfilling thing to do (fortunately I have the option!)  is to listen to my spirit.

Dentists' clinics have their advantages!  While waiting for yet another filling to be done, I began reading Walden and came upon this line- "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling.  Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly."  I had plenty of time to dwell on it (and hope the dentist did too!) and it resonated somewhere deep within.  Soon after, things began to get a little clearer.

I awoke the next morning (pain free!) with the thought that I was really missing my diary.  I had kept a diary for years and had abandoned it at some moment when other forms of writing emerged.  While I express a few of my thoughts and experiences through my blogs, I realized that I would like to spend a little time on writing for myself.  Jotting down thoughts and stray bits of information that might be of no particular interest to anyone else.

Memories flashed through me - not of my own diaries- but those of my mother and grandmother.  Very distinct and different from mine, and from each other- providing just a glimpse of their lives, with gaps to be filled through knowledge or imagination.  As time and energy is limited, I know this will cut into my professional or everyday writing, but it feels like the perfect thing to do at this moment.

This was by no means the end of my instinctive decisions.  Things got curiouser and curiouser.  The next change involved my reading.  I have a large collection of cookbooks and books on food that I have not had time to look at.  It seems a bit ridiculous to spend a precious hour perusing these when I cannot possibly try the recipes immediately, and when there is a long list of already pending chores to be attended to.

But I just felt like reaching out for those books - and so I did; thus I began reading about food once more.

This feels absolutely right and it leaves me with happy, intriguing thoughts on cooking and eating.  To my surprise, this has also led to ideas on clearing and tidying up, beginning (not surprisingly) with the kitchen.  One step paves the way for the next, and I find myself carrying out my pending chores in an unplanned but simple manner (they are far from over, in case you would like to know!).

I have seen this ease and efficiency when the spirit (a word I use, but others may put it differently) expresses itself - a non linear, ill defined path that a computer would not be able to traverse, but which humans can do effortlessly at times.  Often it results in the feeling, "Why didn't I think of this before?"

I am grateful for all the help and happiness I received this year through various people, near and far.  Many friends reached out to us during our time of grief, the thoughts and feelings they shared helped to comfort us and fill a void.

Apart from this, there were acquaintances and friends, new and old, who made a difference to my life this year.  I'm mentioning a few of them-

Our cook in Delhi, Pushkar, who spent his own money in keeping the household going while my mother-in-law was in hospital, and did not even mention it until he was asked when his last salary had been paid.  He knows what each person likes to eat and makes a special effort to cook these when we visit, without our asking.

My driver, Busanna, who received a call yesterday morning, telling him that his young nephew had died in the village.  He was driving Nayan and me to school and did not tell me until we reached.  He tried to make arrangements to go home once his driving duty for the day ended, but this meant he would miss the funeral, and so he decided not to go.  I was making arrangements for another driver but he said it would not be necessary.

These are the kinds of people upon whom we depend, without whom our lives would be much harder and less happy, and it is only fair (as Pushkar requested while talking at my mother-in-law's memorial) that they be treated with consideration and compassion.

Other people, who, by being what they are, have enriched my life, and that of my family-

Nora, a wonderful friend, and a gifted acupuncturist, whose wisdom and love always help me while I am faltering (and whose writing I love to read).

Danny, whose quest for tribal carpets leads him to central Asia, but also to Bangalore, where his carpets now have a happy home.  He spontaneously and very kindly offered his newly set up carpet studio as a place to hold a memorial for my mother-in-law, and it was the perfect place for such an occasion.  His family- Renuka, Luri and Tulu, who bring us great happiness in little ways.

Prakash, one of the last few accordion players in the country, who plays just because he wants to (and has an immense repertoire of music stored in his head) - who deals with family responsibilities with the same apparent ease that he displays while playing his music.

Amit, the jazz guitarist, who is trying to make a place for himself in busy LA, but who always has time for us when he's visiting Bangalore.

Vikram, a new friend discovered during my son's swimming expeditions, an author who spends his time writing and swimming and occasionally giving me advice on how to get published (with no success so far)!

Tanu, sister-in-law, but more of a sister and friend, the one I turn to for all my needs in Delhi (and who never fails in her attempts to help!)

Andrej, the scientist of Slovenian origin, with an extraordinary mind and heart, who stepped into our lives quite by chance.

To these, and others who  make our lives rich and complete- and to all my readers - for helping me sustain this blog!  A big thank you (for wading through my writing) and a happy new year!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Life Gone By

Lotika Varadarajan passed away on October 9th, 2017.  I miss her, as a friend, as the mother in law she was happy to be, as the grandmother she was to my son.

My son and I have written poems about her, which are given below.  In addition, I add some pictures showing various aspects of her life.  She was on her feet - working, meeting people and planning events, almost till the end - I believe that this is how she would have liked to go.

Ajji has gone with the water.

She will become a white flower.

Her happiness will burst into the stars.

  Nayan Varadarajan

A life..

Wild elephants and hills of Shillong
Then to Bangkok, Chulalongkorn

​At Miranda House, with daring do
​Away to Cambridge she flew

Another world, a brave romance
​Sparked off​ from a mid-air glance

Drew people in from many spheres
​Sharing​ their lives, laughter and tears

Science, melded with history
Produced engaging progeny

Kolkata, with its warm embrace
Chaos defied her frantic pace
Fine boned ilish, of silver hue
Perfectly steamed ‘neath Didi’s view

Breakfasts lingered o’er cups of tea
​Discussing friends​ and history

Her world – that of the seven seas
Of sailboats guided by the breeze

Salt smattered steps in still lagoons
Southern stars and crescent moons

Her world – that of the warp and weft
Silken cocoons and fingers deft

Shifting sands, missing dockyards
Harappan sites with silent sha​rds

Wood fired stoves, a simmered stew
Smoky mithun, fried woodworms too

A world that overflowed​ with friends
New and old, at turns and bends

Of dizzying height and daring depth
world​ gone by, we won’t forget

Just for completeness (and for those who would like to know more about her work), here are links to her obituaries-

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Moving Inwards In Yoga

I have resumed my (much interrupted) yoga practice, and as always, it's wonderful to get back to it.  Interruptions are inevitable but if I don't resume, I always feel terrible from inside. Muscles and nerves start protesting!  So I am compelled in a sense to return to it, with much gratitude and relief each time.  It reminds me of the words of the Tai Chi master, Professor Cheng Man-Ch'ing, who said that each time he gave up Tai Chi, he became sick, and thus had to pursue it (eventually he became a great master).

When practicing away from a teacher, a student has to choose his own path.  This, of course, changes with time and one's requirements, also what one is ready for.  This time, my practice has begun with a focus on the inner energy rather than external refining of the postures.  Interestingly, although we use our limbs a lot, and spend much time using (and despairing over) them, in yoga the focus is a little different.  The ultimate aim being the stilling of the mind, the main energy centres one focusses on lie along the spine and up, to the top of the head.

Now that I have begun focussing on my inner energy, I find myself unconsciously sensing the energy given out by the environment as well - in particular nature.  Not in discrete units but in a fuzzy kind of way, feeling the difference between the energy of water and land, of grass and granite, of raindrops and wet earth.

I feel an immense gratitude towards all the traditional, wise systems which recognized this energy, and devised unusual ways to work with it - in particular the systems I have come in contact with - Yoga, Five Element Acupuncture and Tai Chi Chuan.  It's a magical feeling to be linked to everything through something so basic yet intangible, and to be able to tap it and use it wisely.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

It Never Hurts To Ask

This has recently been driven home to me in the gym, where I do my morning practice of yoga.  I usually go there around nine, when there's hardly anyone around (except a couple of regulars).  Often it's quiet but occasionally the radio blares on, loudly and unrelentingly.  Initially I would just grit my teeth and get on with it, especially as the radio seems to coincide with some additional person working out at that time.

Lately however, I have been asking people if I could turn it down a little (the talk and music are really quite grating) and to my surprise, every time I have asked, everyone has said that they do not want the radio on.  They say it was just on when they came, and there's a universal sigh of relief when I turn it off (with cell phones and headphones, no one really needs a public radio in a gym).  This has happened about five times in a row, which just goes to show...!
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