Monday, December 27, 2010

Merry Christmas

Christmas for me is all about remembering and loving people and, hopefully, when the cup bubbleth over, extending this concern to all creatures- greater, smaller or the same as us.  In the past, Christmas was mostly about gazing at enticing shop windows, bedecked trees, carols on the radio and wintry movies on television.  But with Bangalore's changing demography, we are now invited to one or two Christmas parties each year and we now celebrate with friends and family in a uniquely Indo-western way.

The trend began when my brother and his Japanes wife moved here and the large Christmas parties began.  It changed course along the way when a college friend of my husband's shifted to Bangalore along with his family.  The Vaz's, a Christian family from Mangalore, have been inviting us each year for Christmas - and each time it's a different experience.  Sometimes we celebrate with just the family, sometimes (as this year) we are part of a large gathering of friends in their house, with a billowing snowman (no real snow here), lots of food and drink and Christmas carols.  We get to taste all the coastal Christmas specials - the crisp kalkals, the dainty rose cookies, the spiced roasted chicken and the delicious pork curry with sannas (steamed rice cakes).

This year, in addition to these invitations, we had our very own Christmas eve party.  Some students in the lab were leaving and their farewell party coincided with Christmas eve.  So... we had invited twenty two hungry students, of different ages, coming from different parts of the country, who were linked together by science and research.  Much as I wanted to have a proper Christmas dinner, I decided against it.  It's really not cold enough to have the full British fare, I really don't relish turkey (which seems to be the bird of choice for Christmas here) and more than half the students were vegetarian, some not even eating onions, garlic or potato.  So- we began with Blue Hawaii's (which my husband does a neat job of), then went out to the terrace where there was a table piled with chaat ingredients (boiled potatoes, chickpeas, fried papries, golgappas, sweet and spicy chutneys, spiced jaljeera drinks, curd) and asked the students to assemble their own bowls of chaat.  Not surprisisingly, they had a lot of fun doing this. 

For dinner we served mutton biryani, vegetable pulao, a home made creamy hill dal, a variety of lightly cooked vegetables and rotis hot from the oven.  For dessert there was some smoky, milky kheer and I had also made chocolate cake.  Not the sweet fudgy kind that is generally served with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, but a moist, dark chocolatey affair, which I served with coffee ice cream.  I was afraid this might not satisfy the sweet tooths, but I just wanted to serve something that I imagined would be worth eating.  (I had a bitter argument a little while ago,with a renowned Bangalore chef about one of his chocolate creations; I claimed it would be much improved if it were less sweet and he said I didn't know what I was talking about- this was his best selling dessert and so on...)

Anyway, to my surprise, many people enjoyed the cake.  They asked me where I had bought it from and were amazed (sigh! this young generation...) to know that I had baked it.  Many of them said that the cakes they got outside were too sweet and so on.  Anyway, the main thing was that the food went down rather swiftly and smoothly.

And then there were the farewell speeches and so on.  Finally we went outside to our Christmas tree, which normally grows sedately in a pot on the terrace.  For the occasion, it looked suitably perky - with cotton wool snow, some ribbons dangling here and there and a few of my favourite animals nestling comfortably on it.  My most favourite animal, the Woozle (which gave Pooh and Piglet a few anxious moments) was woozling on a fluffy bit of snow.  My next favourite animal (I haven't given it a name yet- it's a sort of monkey with spikes on its back, a tribal root carving) was leaping into one of the cosier spots. 

 A benign Biblical lion stood and gazed wistfully at the presents - and there were twenty two of them, cheerfully wrapped, filled with Christmas cake and chocolates, for the students to take back.

And so ended our party, but not our Christmas.  The next day found us liberally handing out remains of the biryani and pulao to friends, maids, neighbours in what one would term a very Christmassy way.  I hope this burst of festive, good cheer and sunny spirits help us all sail happily through the coming year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Two Experiments In Movement

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  And a little bit of knowledge is...  Be that as it may, I shall plunge headlong into aspects of movement that fill my head from time to time, drawing upon my little knowledge of Yoga (obtained while attending classes these past few years) and even more meagre knowledge of T'ai Chi (based on the books I have read and my observation of my husband's practice).

The deeper I move into understanding asanas (postures) and movement in Ashtanga Yoga, the more I am reminded of the principles I read about in T'ai Chi Ch'uan- the traditional Chinese form of exercise and martial art.  The stress on relaxation, mental focus, steadiness of breath, movement of weight and tapping into the internal energy, though described differently, are emphasized in both forms (and I'm sure they would be in other movement-related schools also).  A more compact form of practice designed a few decades ago, both for Ashtanga Yoga and T'ai Chi Ch'uan, led to their tremendous acceptance and popularity in the West.  Shri Pattabhi Jois selected and linked together sets of asanas, resulting in the primary, intermediate and advanced series that most Ashtanga aschools adhere to even today; Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing developed a shortened version of the T'ai Chi form that made it easier to incorporate it into one's daily routine.

But through all the threads of similarity that I noted regarding principles of movement, until recently I was puzzled by the apparent lack of conformity on how one feels as one's practice gets "deeper".  Teachers of Yoga say that the body feels lighter, movements are easier.  T'ai Chi texts emphasize the increase in heaviness and rootedness.  But I feel now that these are different aspects and different qualities being discussed, hence a simple comparison is not possible.  The lightness seen in Yoga is quite apparent in the movements that lift the body, making it almost hover in the air or remain balanced with very little weight on the ground.  The heaviness is never more apparent than in shavasana (corpse pose), a little understood pose, where one is almost sucked into the ground.  Similarly, the slowness of the T'ai Chi form is deceptive to a novice as anyone who has seen T'ai Chi masters dealing with opponents will confirm.  At times, the eye cannot even see the movement, just the outcome, and the T'ai Chi master is long gone from the spot when the opponent tumbles.

There are two simple experiments I tried today, in my attempt to understand some of these principles.  You could try them too (if you are so inclined), they are interesting and simple.

The first was a classic Yoga upward stretch - you stand with your feet together and stretch your arms up towards the sky, forearms close to the ears.  Most likely while doing this, you feel the stretch in your arms and shoulders.  Books say that if you are more flexible, you feel the stretch emerging from your lower back.  But now if you alter the movement a little - relax your ankles and if possible, make sure that all the parts of the foot that are in touch with the ground have a uniform distribution of weight (your arches will of course be off the ground).  Stretch your hips up and then stretch the arms towards the sky.  Do you feel a different stretch?  Somehow it seems to begin right from your feet and continue all the way up.  It probably is always like that, it's just that we aren't focussing on the complete movement in a relaxed manner much of the time.

Another nice movement from T'ai Chi is to stand straight and slowly lift your arms till they are stretched out at shoulder level, parallel to the ground and away from you.  This is a lift, not a stretch.  Not difficult is it?  But now, if you put your hands back by your sides, focus on releasing all the tension from your arms (your wrists will go limp, your arms just drop by your sides) and repeat the movement, lifting your arms as slowly as possible, feeling the air as a medium through which you are moving, you will see just how difficult it can be, just how heavy your arms can feel.

The conclusion?  There isn't any one conclusion- this is just something meant to initiate thought about how your body moves under different conditions and how your perceptions can change with varying circumstances.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sound and Force or Silence and Stillness?

These days I am coming across several people who mention that they have got small setbacks after attending a yoga class.  This is generally because they have been pushed too hard and some muscle or nerve has given way.  This is often temporary, lasting a few days to a few weeks, but the feeling is uncomfortable especially as the students have been attending short courses.

Ashtanga yoga (modified now into Power yoga) lends itself easily to such forceful adjustments as it is a deceptively vigorous form of yoga.  The original style, as taught by Shri Krishnamacharya  (subsequently popularized and transformed by some of his students including Shri Pattabhi Jois and Shri B.K.S. Iyengar) was a dynamic and fluid one, but dynamism should not be equated to sheer muscular strength or 'adrenalin pumping'.  Like all classical yoga, the method is steeped in silence, the ultimate goal stillness.  The process requires very fine physical control and the use of precise muscular locks and breathing patterns.  This involves a lot of time, practice and understanding of one's body (and mind).

Classes which try and popularize these styles by pushing people to the edge of their physical limits (creating a temporary high) or by drawing attention away from the churning of the mind by constant conversation, yelling (yes! it is not uncommon) or music create only a temporary 'feel good' situation, if at all.  Sometimes, instructors are driven by the simple desire to achieve a certain outcome - at times to prove themselves, sometimes just driven by excessive enthusiasm to help their students learn or do something new.  In these cases, sometimes things click and sometimes they just snap.

Having learnt and practiced the same movements in the same class for years on end (yes! people find it hard to believe that I have not 'moved on'), I feel that it takes time for the student and teacher to understand and be comfortable with each other.  Repeating old movements is not a sign of stagnation and getting small injuries while exploring new movements is not a disaster.  But the process must be approached with caution and with enough time at hand.  In my experience, being pushed into postures rarely helps except when one needs to understand the origin and direction of the movement.  One must be ready for the movement, both physically and mentally, and then it comes of its own and in its own way.  It is often not a question of brute strength at all.  Similarly, the way to silence the mind is not through more noise, but through focusing inward, on the breath and internal energy, and enjoying those short moments of stillness when they come.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Truth About A Tooth

Something strange has been happening to my teeth over the last few years.  That's what I like to believe.  But my dentist in Delhi put it more pragmatically and somewhat bluntly.  "You're brushing too hard," he said, while filling the upteenth little cavity.  "Too much wrist pressure."  Made me feel like a pugilist.  I explained that I used the softest possible brush in the gentlest way, but he brushed it aside.  "Maybe your teeth are just softer than usual.  Buy an electric toothbrush.  And I'll wait for the remaining surfaces to erode further before I do anything more."

And that was that.  Except that electric toothbrushes are not so easy to come by.  Anyway, I returned to Bangalore and was getting back to my routine when I began to experience an occasional twinge. I felt I could do nothing about it except wait for those holes to enlarge or heal- I decided to begin with positive visualization (yes!  I am convinced that if I love my teeth enough, they may get well...) and chewing a clove or two.

This morning the pain was more than a twinge, in fact it filled my mental horizon and began to interfere with my yoga practice.  "I release all past problems and pains," I told myself and immediately a swarm of horrible images flooded my mind, which I tried to release immediately.  The pain continued.  Then it hit me- an idea I mean.  We only retain a selective fraction of the past that incorporates itself into our present.  I have never been able to (nor have I seen anyone else) go  into the past and release all the pain that is associated with memories.  But if I focus on removing negativity in the present, that includes the past I'm carrying forward, and that might be more effective.  I tried this and, almost immediately, the pain receded.

This (being real life) is of course, not the end of the story.  After a hearty breakfast (doing a full set of yoga after a long time) with yoga-friends, I continued to feel fine.  As soon as I reached home however, while rinsing, I felt something hard in my mouth and looked to see one of my fillings nestling in my gums, far away from the tooth it had originally covered.  Hmmm.  The good news was there was still no pain.  The bad news was- my dentist was 2000 km away.  I recalled that we had once visited an elderly, avuncular dentist whose clinic was not too far away and decided I may as well return to see him.  Fortunately an appointment slot was available immediately and I set off.

The office looked as it had some years ago but it was completely empty.  A lady emerged from one of the rooms, looked at me and yelled something.  A young man immediately entered the reception area.  I presumed he was the receptionist as he had evidently answered my phone call.

"Come this way, " he led me to the dreaded chair with its usual paraphernalia.  I sat down.  No sign of the dentist.  The woman appeared with an anticipatory gleam of excitement in her eyes.  The man approached, gleaming tools in hand.  A dreadful thought filled my mind.
"Where is Dr. Ray?"
"Oh, he's away for ten days.  Gone to attend his niece's wedding in Kolkata," said the young man breezily.  "Ill attend to you."
I sank back apprehensively.
"Where's the cavity?" he asked and I indicated the general area. However he seemed to be looking behind my teeth for some unknown reason.  "The front, the front," I mumbled.
"This?" he tapped a tooth and I almost leapt out of the chair but was held down by the paraphernalia.  I didn't feel the need to reply.
"Just relax, this will be a little sensitive."
When dentists say, "Just relax," they actually mean, "This will be unpleasant but it will be worse if you squirm and yell."
When they say, "This will be a little sensitive," they mean, "It's going to be awful but there's nothing you can do about it."
Having years of experience in interpreting dentist-lingo, I resigned myself to just twitching my feet when the sensitivity was overwhelming.  The lady looked a bit pale but the dentist continued to be chatty.  I hoped he was competent and tried to imagine positive things about him.

After bits of things had been put in, scraped off, pushed firmly and so on, he asked me to rinse and check my teeth.  "You won't even be able to make out which tooth I filled," he said with obvious pride in his handiwork.  I looked.  It was true I couldn't see the filling.  It was just that blood was gently oozing out from the side of one of my teeth.  He made a quick dabbing movement.  "Just a little bleeding because of the polishing," he muttered.
I nodded.  "It's fine."
"You brush too hard," he said.  Back to square one, I thought.  "Buy a power toothbrush.  It' available at any Health and Glow outlet."  My spirits rose.  At last!  The answer to my dreams and prayers!
"Tomorrow," I said firmly and then asked, "Any food restrictions?"
"No, no" his high spirits were uncontainable.   They seemed to rise and fill the entire clinic.  "In fact, it's lunch time.  Pizza Hut is just above us.  You can go there.  And after that you must try Sweet Chariot."
I was momentarily taken aback.  "You shouldn't be saying all this being a dentist!"
He shrugged.  "You gotto eat.  And anyway, you must try Sweet Chariot.  You'll see the cavity isn't sensitive to sugar anymore."
I nodded.  This was as good a way as any of testing my new filling, I thought.  But, I'm afraid my positive resolutions didn't let me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lorax

Yesterday, at a book sale I happened to choose
A book called 'The Lorax', by Dr. Seuss
Written in super-fantabulous style
It brought a small tear, a hint of a smile
Seeing the Lorax's world, uncannily true
And so I quote a few of the lines to you...

"But those trees!  Those trees!
Those Truffula Trees!
All my life I'd been searching
for trees such as these.
The touch of their tufts
was much softer than silk.
And they had the sweet smell
of fresh butterfly milk

I felt a great leaping
of joy in my heart.
I knew just what I'd do!
I unloaded my cart.
In no time at all, I had built a small shop.
Then I chopped down a Truffula Tree with one chop.
And with great skillful skill and with great speedy speed,
I took the soft tuft.  And I knitted a Thneed!

The instant I'd finished, I heard a ga-Zump!
I looked.
I saw something pop out of the stump
of the tree I'd chopped down.  It was sort of a man.
Describe him?... That's hard.  I don't know if I can.

He was shortish.  And oldish.
And brownish.  And mossy.
And he spoke with a voice
that was sharpish and bossy.

"Mister!" he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
"I am the Lorax.  I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs"-
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed-
"What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?"

"I repeat," cried the Lorax,
"I speak for the trees!"
"I'm busy," I told him.
"Shut up, if you please."....

But the next week
he knocked
on my new office door.

He snapped,"I'm the Lorax who speaks for the trees
which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please.
But I'm also in charge of the Brown Bar-ba-loots
who played in the shade in their Bar-ba-loot suits
and happily lived, eating Truffula Fruits.

"NOW...thanks to your hacking my trees to the ground,
There's not enough Truffula fruit to go 'round.
And my poor Bar-ba-loots are all getting the crummies
because they have gas, and no food, in their tummies!

"They loved living here.  But I can't let them stay.
They'll have to find food.  And I hope that they may.
Good luck, boys," he cried.  And he sent them away...."

What happens next to the Truffula fruit?
And the brown Bar-ba-loots
in their Bar-ba-loot suits?
Ah! I'm afraid
That I can't say
You must ask the Lorax
When he comes your way.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Supreme Picnic

Excerpts from a delightful account of a Turkish picnic, written by Penelope Chetwode (Lady Betjeman) decades ago-

"After an interval of thirty years, I returned to India in 1963 by the overland route.  A young doctor friend bought a second-hand Volkwagen Dormobile from a farmer near Wantage and proceeded to make a green roll-up tent on his mother's sewing machine - which has never worked since.  The tent, fixed to the roof of the vehicle, could be unrolled and set up as a roomy lean-to-shelter within five minutes of arriving at any camp site.  The cooking was done in it on two primus stoves, and there was room for three people to sleep on the ground while two of us slept in the Dormobile.

In those far-off days petrol cost the equivalent of 20p a gallon, and by the time we reached Delhi the captain (as we called the doctor) calculated he had spent about a hundred pounds on it after driving some five to six thousand miles.  We took two months to complete the journey since we wanted to do as much sightseeing as possible in Turkey and Iran, and foodwise our life was one great picnic as we had all our meals al fresco except when we spent a few nights in great cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Teheran.

The cooking was done on the primus stoves because the captain had been informed that gas cylinders were unobtainable in many places on our route, and that wood was virtually non-existent throughout Turkey and Iran.  I well remember meeting two Swiss boys who were traveling to India on a Vespa and had planned to buy food on their way and cook it on bonfires.  Since there was no wood lying about in the treeless wilds of Anatolia they were almost starving – they had to fill themselves up in restaurants in the towns they came through and had hardly any money left.

Primus stoves are so fierce that the ideal pot to use on them is a pressure cooker.  I used to cook our supper in one every night, so that we could usually eat within an hour of setting up camp.  We eventually got rather bored with  the mutton we bought in the Turkish bazaars and thought that chicken would be a welcome change.  Accordingly, when we came to a town called Nevsehir, crowned by an Ottoman fortrss, we tried to make some men understand that we wanted to buy some poultry, but they took us to the police station!  There we began to flap our arms up and down and cluck loudly, and everyone laughed and understood perfectly…

...We now found ourselves in the most extraordinary landscape in the middle of Cappadocia: for about twenty miles through a valley, erosion has left huge cones about a hundred feet high, some of which look like decaying teeth, others like towers, needles and pyramids formed of ashes and rock.  These are collectively known as the Rock-cut Monasteries of Cappadocia because, during the seventh and eighth centuries whole communities of Christians settled in the area and cut out of the rock churches and monasteries which they decorated with wall paintiungs.

We found a wonderful camp site at the head of the valley in a small sandy field with superb views…
But to return to our supper picnic on the evening of our arrival.  I decided to prepare a supreme de volaille by cooking the elderly tough little chickens in the pressure cooker, and the rice in an open saucepan on the other stove.  After half an hour I wanted to let the pressure down quickly so that I could get on with making the sauce out of the stock.  In the centre of a pressure cooker is a weight; when you lift it off it makes a violent hissing sound which always terrifies me, so I asked the captain if he dared to do it.  He immediately removed not just the weight but the whole lid, whereupon the cooked birds leaped high into the air and disappeared in the inky blackness of a moonless night!

We were all mad with disappointment at being thus deprived of what had promised to be one of the most gastronomically exciting picnics of our journey, but we did not give up hope.  For the next twenty minutes we all crawled about on our hands and knees and, with the aid of two very feeble torches, we finally ran them to earth – quite literally, for they were covered with the dusty grey soil of the region.  Undaunted, we plunged them into a bucket of water and, while the girls washed and jointed them, I made a delicious sauce supreme with fat, flour, the stock a little dried milk powder, and the juice of half a lemon.

We finally sat down in a circle round our old hurricane lamp to a scrumptious meal of chicken and rice and sauce and green beans that we had bought in the market at Nevsehir, followed by delicious little white grapes and all washed down by unadulterated spring water.  Water in Turkey is famous for its excellence.

I think our Cappadocian chicken picnic was the best we had on the whole trip, all the more for being so hard won.  I was also very proud of the jam roly-poly I made when we were allowed to camp in the harem of Xerxes in Persepolis but that, as Kipling would say, is another story..."

Friday, November 26, 2010

What is it about dogs II ?

There has been a growing trend in Indian cities of people keeping german shepherds (alsations) as pets.  I have seen these beautiful dogs, always on a leash, tied outside houses, in small gardens or being taken for leisurely morning strolls.  I have often wondered whether the owners are aware of the magnificence of these dogs - so wolf like and close to the wild - and their need for space and unrestricted movement.  They are comfortable with people but there is a part of them that remains unshackled and belongs to the wild; this needs to be understood and respected.  When they are used purely as guard dogs in restricted space and crowded cities, neither respected nor loved, not even allowed to roam free, a dreadful imbalance creeps in which clouds what could have been a uniquely fulfilling relation based on love and trust.

I was standing five feet away from such a dog this morning in the park, when it soundlessly lunged at me.  There were no warning growls or barks or anything in its body language to indicate that it was about to attack.  And what an attack!  Even though its owner held onto one end of its leash, the dog pounced on my arm, then at my chest and abdomen.  I was saved by my fluffy lambswool sweater and cotton salwar kameez, which ripped into shreds giving me a few precious seconds to run behind a tree.  Otherwise I would not have been able to free myself from those jaws.  I thanked my stars I was not wearing the western outfits that are always in vogue here - thick denims and jackets.

Surprisingly, I was not afraid, even for a moment.  It was a purely physical interaction - with the dog jumping at me and I trying to get away, turning and twisting.  Perhaps it is because I have seen so many dogs at close quarters and I really did not blame the dog.  I realised it was unbalanced and ill tempered (and dangerous) but I did not sense a personal targeting that human-based attacks often seem to convey.  In a sense I could glimpse the tussle between the hunter and the prey, memories of which are certainly imprinted somewhere deep within us.

Once it was over, of course, I felt shock followed by tremendous relief and thankfulness when I realised that everything around me had been ripped (including the gold chain from my neck) but I had nothing more than a few small bruises.  Fortunately there was no one around and I ran back home rather quickly, holding up my clothes!  But it is an unfortunate and very avoidable kind of incident and one that may only increase unless people are sensitive to the temperaments and requirements of dogs - and in fact of just about everything around them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Tailor's Tale

Yesterday a wizened old man twinkled into our house in Delhi.  He had come especially to meet me as I was visiting and had some work for him to do.  I have been seeing him through the years as I was growing up, with a small gap in between when he was suddenly and inexplicably paralyzed.  Fortunately he has recovered completely and seems to be his usual self once more.

He placed his portable sewing machine on the verandah, hitched up his trousers, sat cross legged on the floor and examined the curtain material I handed him.  Then he stood up again and asked me which way I wanted it sewn - which side in front, which side up, with lining or without - he held the material up in different ways - in the light, in the shade, with lining, without, rotated it round - until we had seen all aspects of the cloth and taken a decision.  Then, with great concentration, he began to measure, cut and sew and, during breaks, talk to us about episodes of his life.

Narayan Das was only eight when partition took place.  His father had already died and he was the eldest child in his family.  His family moved from Pakistan to Delhi and lived on the railway platform for several months until they were allotted a house.  He began to work in cloth and upholstery shops as untrained labour at the age of ten - lifting, carrying materials and eventually learnt how to sew.  Shop owners were impressed by his obvious skill and at some point my great uncle discovered him and he got his first official contract to fix upholstery and curtains for a big company.  This was just the beginning of a successful career - to getting many more contracts and requests for tailoring in other companies and in the houses of the rich and famous.  It's rather funny because as he goes from house to house, he conveys regards from one client to the other (the rich and famous clients are probably too busy to call each other personally and he is a convenient conduit).

His children are well settled and he has no financial need to work now.  They keep asking him to stop.  But he won't.  "I work for myself, not for the money," he said.  "I work to be alive."

His day begins early.  At 8.45 he is at the temple, praying.  At 9 he collects his portable sewing machine and sets off in the direction of the next client's house or office and returns only in the evening.  He travels by bus, or at the most by an autorickshaw.

Last evening, after his work was complete and he had shared some samosas and jalebis with us at tea, he was ready to say goodbye and trundle off.  "No money," he shook his head.  "I won't take money from a daughter."  So of course, my father gave him some amount as a goodwill gesture and we bade him farewell.  Until next time.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What is it about dogs?

What is it about dogs that can bring a smile to your face at one moment and a lump in your throat the very next?

Having grown up with dogs and seen them through ups and downs - from teaching them how to climb down steps to holding them gently just before they died, feeling them almost clawing on to me and to life itself, I felt almost relieved that I was unable to keep a dog on campus.  There just isn't the space and the campus is overrun by strays who scavenge garbage.  And one thing I feel strongly now is that dogs need space.  They can do without it, but if one has ever seen them running in wide open spaces, just for the joy of running, one wouldn't want to keep them confined.

Despite my steely resolve not to associate closely with dogs, it turned out that dogs seemed to want to associate with me.  I had very little choice in this matter!  Somehow our neighbour's dogs and an assorted collection of abandoned puppies found their way up to my house.  They would stay for brief intervals before moving on to a permanent place.

The last of these is Blacky, a hand-me-down dog.  Her original owners moved off campus, leaving her here about twelve years ago, to be adopted by a second family- and then a third.  Despite this, she has never developed the wariness that one sees in such animals; she's gentle and friendly and never happier than when surrounded by people of all ages.

She was the first neighbour to drop in and welcome us when we moved in a few years ago and since then dropped by almost every evening for a quick hallo and a teatime snack.  She scratches the door briefly and sits back in a ladylike fashion until I emerge with a couple of biscuits.

But I really got to know her better once she began falling ill.  I once helped our neighbour take her to the vet. and after that each time she is ill, she comes up and sits on our little covered verandah until her owners come to fetch her or until she feels better.  I think she knows she will be undisturbed and reasonably comfortable and that I will contact her owners once they return from work.  I think she also likes to be out in the fresh air when ill and on our verandah she is not troubled by the gangs of stray dogs and football playing boys that roam the streets.

Last night, she walked up once more and I was just chiding her on her late hours, informing her that I was about to go to bed.  She wagged her tail, took a biscuit gingerly and licked my hand a little before settling down.  Just when I was going to switch off the lights, her owners trudged up, looking for her.  She had apparently just returned from hospital after receiving a shot of painkillers as she wasn't able to put much weight on her hind legs.  It was then that I noticed that she was still uncomfortable, had somehow managed the climb up two flights of stairs, but was reluctant to walk down.  Usually she sleeps on a thick sheet outside my door if she is unwell, but she had to be sent home last night as the doctor had wanted her to be kept warm.  Eventually, she had to be carried back and she quite enjoyed this stately ride home, gently wagging her tail to bestow appreciation on one and all who participated in the procession.

It was such a ridiculously funny yet heart wrenchingly sad moment to see her - obviously uncomfortable yet full of love and gentleness and appreciation for the moment.  I really don't know how dogs manage it.  I never can.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Different Hues of Goa

We were in Goa for four days, to attend a science meeting.  It was the first time we were not on vacation - not hitting the beaches and the seafood shacks and not taking long siestas in high ceilinged rooms.  It was also the first time we were there in 'the season' (the tourist season) and the first time we experienced regular Goa showers (the rains have been unseasonal and heavy this year).  As a result, the beaches were packed, the sea temperamental and we had no option but to look at other facets of Goa.

We were housed in Hotel Mandovi, a respectable old hotel in the heart of the old centre of Goa, Panjim.  Rennovation has not done the hotel much good, but the location allowed me to walk down all the little lanes and alleys of this part of the city.  It took some time to get accustomed to this though.  I strongly associate Goa with the sea - soft, sweeping beaches and wave-packed waters.  Not being able to see or even smell the sea was most disconcerting and unsettling in the beginning and I felt as if something important was missing from my life! 

Anyway, I began my series of walks.  The first set of directions to the market led me to the heart of the municipal centre - a place packed with hardware stores, pure veg. Udipi restaurants and shady alcohol shops.  A very Hindu atmosphere pervaded.  I had nothing against this but I personally preferred the Portugese-Christian shades of Goan culture - the food, the music, the customs and more.

The next round of exploration was somewhat better as I decided to ask for bakeries instead of general markets.  I was rapidly directed to a charming, somewhat touristy, but still lovely square with interesting looking shops - the erstwhile Mr. Baker's (est. 1922), where everyone drops in for a mug of steaming tea and the mildly spiced fish croquettes or the Goan dessert bebinca.  Just behind it was a shop selling imported Portuguese foods and ceramics and a little way down was the main church of Panjim in gleaming white and blue.

The following morning we were fortunate to be introduced to Luis Dias - a young doctor who likes to take people on walking tours when he has the time.  Coming from an old, eminent Goan family, he lives in the old mint (now the Dias family house) opposite the main post office.  He has also recently begun a music school for underprivileged children
The Panjim post office
 He took us down the most charming streets of Panjim and we saw a beautiful section of old Portuguese-Goan life.  The distinctive-looking houses with their little shrines dedicated to patron saints, the little figures of Portuguese sentries or the highly coloured Portuguese cocks that stood happily on walls or atop old wells, the tiled and mosiac-lined walls.

Houses were painted in blue, white, yellow or terracotta.  Little gardens peeped out unexpectedly through curving lanes.  It was a very different aspect of Goa that we glimpsed.

We also drove down south, to Loutulim, to visit the elderly Lourdes Figeuredo - a fiesty old lady in her eighties who is single handedly taking care of her family's 17th century mansion.  She has converted a part of it into a museum, which displays the life and times of the Goan-Portuguese elite over two or three generations.  She also lets out a few rooms for people to stay.

We saw the huge old house with enormous wooden floors and high chandeliered ceilings.  Intricately carved wooden furniture that almost had a south-east Asian look to it, masses of Chinese ceramics - blue pottery, pink pottery and more.  European silverware and porcelain in abundance.  Pieces of art strewn everywhere.  There was a large and beautiful prayer room, a dining hall that had seen upto 800 guests on special occasions, a central courtyard with a little garden where a band could play - traces of a charming, Mediterranean-influenced life style.
There were sprawling fields all round (much of the family land has been gifted to the village farmers) with coconut plantations seen in the far distance.

The present generation of Figeuredos are all in Portugal.  Goa in general is witnessing a whirlwind of change.  Times could not be better economically (though the main source of income is still tourism and now perhaps, real estate).  But frustration levels are high - the lack of suitable jobs, corruption in high places and the tourist-driven growth have made it a very different place from the laid back, easygoing city of old.  Certainly the little that I saw of some of the popular beaches made me glad I had spent my time in the city instead - so disconnected from nature were they.

And yet, I met the old lady of Mr. Baker's who asked me if I enjoyed each of the pastries and savouries that I had sampled.  I met the hotel musician who effortlessly played, amongst other things, Astor Piazzolla's music and when asked, said vaguely that he had just heard these tangos somewhere and they stayed in his mind - he actually played the guitar in his village church at seven each morning before going to his 'regular job.'  Luis Dias too is a violinist and has been busy the past few years setting up a music school and has not found the time to practice medicine.

Our ancient and temperamental taxi driver - Joe- who would cheerfully greet us with a handshake each morning and the relaxed looking man at the airport who just seemed to be lounging under a tree, wearing a T-shirt that read "Read books not T-shirts".  Well, seeing all this made me feel that Goa was reassuringly still - Goan.

Worker busy on the cell phone as he paints the church for Christmas
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