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...!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Poetry and Conversation

My neighbour (a remarkably astute principal of a college) periodically asks me to judge a poetry contest she conducts during their college festival.  So it was that I spent much of yesterday poring over poems, almost all reflecting teenage angst (except for one, who had written about Hitler's prowess as an artist!).  The title given to them was 'Is This Me', hard enough for anyone to think about, more so perhaps for young adults.

When I went to return the poetry filled sheets, I mentioned to my neighbour about how much angst the students seemed to have.  "Yes," she said, in a very matter of fact way.   "That's partly why I organize these contests - to give them an outlet."

We have all gone through phases of struggle; the process is familiar but the contents seem to have changed, and we discussed this for a while.  She said that the main problem students in her college voiced was not peer pressure but being unable to communicate with their parents.

I was a bit taken aback at this; I had attributed many of the problems to social media, lack of time and place for sport or creative opportunities, a sense of isolation and more.  Not to parents.  But that's not how the students seem to see it.  Reality probably lies somewhere in between but I can see that relentless pushing at home would not help a teenager who is anyway struggling to come to terms with the world around.  Something to ponder about.

The poems were free and frank and reflected more confusion and dismay than anger.

At the end of all this, I was happy to turn back to old loved poetry, to Rilke, who reminds us that every moment is precious and life changing.  I have quoted this poem before but I put it down once more for it moves me each time I read it-

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Five Element Acupuncture- A Patient's Perspective

I'm writing this blog because I have often been asked, "Does acupuncture really work?" and I have been thinking about it long and hard.

My answer is, "It depends."

It depends on the style of acupuncture (my husband visited a clinic in Delhi where he was hooked to a machine that gave out a signal.  Based on this, a doctor shoved in some needles.  My husband felt nothing, then or later).

It depends on the practitioner and their ability to read the patient's problems and what is causing them.  ("When you see a child who comes for treatment, it's often the parents who need it," said my friend Nora.)

It depends on the nature of the condition to be treated and whether the patient has tried other systems of medicine or healing.  (A visiting scientist and friend from California recently said that for several days he had been hiccuping continuously.  Nothing helped until he finally turned to acupuncture, and the hiccups stopped soon after.)

Acupuncture did not enter my life in any determined decisive way.  Like most of my decisions, I drifted towards it entirely by chance.  While returning from America, I stopped to meet my mother in law, who was staying in London with her old college friend, Nora.  I spent a few days with them and when I left, Nora gave me a book to read on five element acupuncture as I am interested in traditional forms of healing.

I did not think I would ever need treatment, but many years down the line, when I was feeling burnt out and low, and conventional medicine had no answers, I turned to acupuncture.  Instinctively, I turned to Nora, who had become a close friend.  Since then, I have returned to London several times, sometimes just for a visit and on several occasions, for treatment as well.

Each time, my experience with acupuncture has been the same (though the treatments have varied with each session).  There are some points which trigger a discernible physical reaction- warmth in certain parts, an unblocking of the ears or nose, coughing out mucous or tears that well up in my eyes.

But these occasions are few.

Generally, there is a feeling of relaxation, sometimes fatigue, a desire to sleep or to release one's emotions in some way.  I often go for treatment when I am at the crossroads of important decisions (as I realize later).  They are times when things seem very difficult or when I have just finished a period of struggle and am completely worn out.  I feel I need something more than my yoga practice or a holiday, to renew myself.

I always love the moment when I enter Nora's clinic.  I get a timeless feeling of being part of something old and venerable, and recently, of being in the presence of a master.  Nora is warm ('fire'), spontaneous and brings a wisdom and slant of her own to the practice.  (In fact clinic is the wrong word for this place, for it is filled with paintings, calligraphy, beautiful stones, a cheerful air and a comfortable bed where one can lie down and shrug off one's cares.  My son is very fond of the dragon in the corridor, whom he has named 'Flamie Jamie'.)

Decisions about diagnosis and treatment seem to come from Nora and beyond - as if a whole line of  teachers were standing behind guiding her spirit and her hands.  This might sound fanciful, but it's what I felt on this visit.

For those who wonder how it's done, five element acupuncture is not a gentle, wishy washy process.  The positioning of the needles is very precise.  Often the spot is warmed before by placing a little cone of moxa and heating the area, and repeating this a few times - if you don't tell the practitioner when you feel the warmth, you're likely to get slightly singed!  You don't feel the needles as they go in, but when the point is being needled there is a definite tug, sometimes a feeling of being stung!

Energy shifts and changes can be very strong and the effect is not always felt immediately.  This time I felt like a rusty old engine - coughing, spluttering and eventually coming to life.  Nora detected a block in my ears that I had completely forgotten about (after having visited several doctors, all of whom told me there was nothing wrong).  I awoke the next morning to find smells from the street almost overwhelming as I began to smell clearly after ages.  Needless to say the migraines have also been receding.

After the treatments, there is a general feeling of stillness and contentment that I have experienced time and again. A feeling of being at peace with nature and with oneself.  It's happened too often to be a coincidence.

After a week I returned to India to find I was able to deal with all the physical and emotional demands around without getting flustered.  I began to change my attitude towards things that had got me stressed and anxious earlier (this was partly a result of feeling stronger and partly an aftermath of conversations with Nora about dealing with things that worry me- something no doctor in any conventional clinic would waste their time doing).

The change has also reflected in my creative decisions - writing to begin with.  I have found a tranquil place to write and I now have the energy to write almost everyday, which I didn't have earlier.  My thoughts about what to write and the next project to embark upon have changed tremendously.  Right now I'm standing in the midst of a very happy jumble of paths, feeling my way forward.

For me, five element acupuncture with Nora has cleared many physical and mental blocks at times when conventional medicine or yoga could not.

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