Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ending The Year In Kolkata

I was in Kolkata for Christmas.  During the rest of the year, I don't mind calling it Kolkata but at Christmas it's always Calcutta for me.  Changing times, political climes and tastes have altered Park Street and other Christmassy neighbourhoods but there is still something special - an extra spark in the typically excitable Bengali, at Christmas.

I spent this time mostly in and around Ballygunge, where I stayed.  It's an old residential area with a large, bustling (and well known) local market.  In the mornings, I walked past old houses that had seen four generations (or more), some spick and span and some old and cobwebby.  Vendors walked down the streets, pushing little carts.  The much publicised (and oft criticised) rickshaws still plied here, moving adroitly in and out of the narrow streets.  Yellow Kolkata taxis honked their way through.

The market was a short walk away.  I like to visit it early in the morning, before the traffic builds up.  It's always bustling and loaded with fresh produce and seasonal specials.  Vegetables are piled high everywhere.  On weekends, people come from the outskirts to sell special and unusual local vegetables - ferns, delicate greens, herbs and more.

The fish market is expectedly large and noisy.  Glistening fish lie on gleaming steel counters indoors and on wooden planks, ice filled cane baskets or atop fresh green banana leaves outdoors.  There is a fish for every meal, occasion or whim!

Individual book shops still survive despite the ubiquitous chains.  One manages to get a slightly different selection here, both for adults and children.  A particularly nice book I read this time (for children but nice for anyone) was 'The Cloud Tea Monkeys', written by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham and wonderfully illustrated by Juan Wijngaard.  It is a story set in the Assam tea gardens during the colonial period.

A visit to Kolkata implies being plied with lots of food - The typical Kolkata fish chops, rice, dal and gandharaj nimbu (a very fragrant and special lime, which I have now planted in my garden).  Winter squash, tender radishes, greens, lobster and more.

And sweets!  Local sweets can never be forgotten even in the midst of Christmas confectionary and we have a terrific selection of goodies awaiting us at home.  We like our tried and tested old sweet shops but every corner has a little one, serving tea, sweets and savouries.  This is the season for fresh palm jaggery (notun gur) which imparts a delicious sweetness that is flavourful but not cloying.  A very special taste.

Each neighbourhood seems to have new bakeries now, and their standard is quite high.  Amongst the many, we discovered  Mrs. Magpie, a quaint bakery located near the lakes (we walked around the lakes every afternoon as Nayan peered down to look at the fish, threw leaves in the water and climbed little hillocks that must have appeared like giant mountains to him).  This tea shop was always overflowing with people, and had some lovely little cakes, scones and biscuits to offer.

A visit to the local jeweller was a must and this time I ordered a bangle for myself, which he will make and keep for me in iron and gold.  It is a very traditional 'marriage' bangle that new shops no longer stock because it is not glittery enough.  The wall of the jeweller's shop has a picture of a yogi and fresh flowers are offered to this image every day.  Indeed, Kolkata is the homeland of yogis (of course nothing compared to the Himalayas but several enlightened and accomplished teachers have lived here over the centuries and have reached out to many people all over the world).  This spirit seems to permeate the very soul of the city - at least that is what I feel and sense each time I visit.  In the midst of the noise, grime, dense air, raucous traffic and extra loud human voices, it is easy to forget this, but one only has to look at little streets and corners and close one's eyes - and the signs of strong positive traditions stand out.

This is also the last blog if the year, and with it I send my new year wishes to all of you.  I hope that despite the tempests that might swirl about you in the coming year, you are also touched by fragile rainbows, freshly fallen dew, orange and gold sunsets, silvery moonshine and starbursts.  By all the beauty that passes through and leaves us with a sense of peace and wonderment, reminding that the world is essentially a good place.  Happy new year!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Carpet Stories

All crafts tell tales.  In my view, master crafts tell extraordinary tales that come straight from the spirit- talking of love, life or nature.  Mass produced crafts often talk of life in factories or life in the modern world with its lack of time and concern for detail.

Some months ago we visited Danny Mehra's extraordinary exhibition of tribal rugs from central Asia.  Danny is not a craftsman but a collector and he has an unusual eye and a deep interest in tribal carpets.  (This blog is weeks overdue.  My apologies, I am still learning with my little boy, as his routines change and grow.)

We bought a carpet at the exhibition, which spoke of different things to each of us.  Danny said he originally bought it because of its golden hue.  My husband felt it was like an impressionist painting - colours melding into each other and producing a certain effect that the individual colours would not.  The carpet spoke to me of days in the sun - wandering through fields of wheat and poppies.  My son likes it because it is soft and has pretty flowers and an interesting (and sacred) pattern of interwoven turtles.

Danny is exhibiting his carpets in Delhi from December 18th to 28th at the India International Centre (for readers who live in Delhi).  The exhibition is titled Carpet Stories and Danny will display rare tribal carpets from Persia, Anatolia, the Caucasus, Central Asia and various Kurdish enclaves.  It's worth seeing as our museums do not really have collections of tribal carpets from these regions.  (For anyone who would like to know more about them, Danny can be contacted at )

There will also be a few talks at this event.  Danny strongly denies professional knowledge in this area, emphasising that this is his hobby, but his knowledge accumulated over the years is quite vast, and he is always happy to share it with people.

I'm ending with a few words from Danny's mail and some pictures I took from his earlier exhibition.

I would like to personally invite you to my exhibition and will be delighted if you are able to come!

All the carpets on display have been selected from my personal (mad) collection and are my humble tribute to the rich weaving traditions of prominent tribal groups from various regions outside India.

The exhibition will run daily during December 18-28 from 11 AM to 7 PM.  A summary of additional events is given below...please join us for as many of them as you can!

Monday, October 5, 2015

A London Summer

My London summer was uncharacteristic, certainly not touristy.  I went mainly to meet my friend Nora, and I stayed close to where she was, in central London.  I had a little baby in tow, who was too small to walk or spend more than an hour or hour and a half outdoors before crashing.  I myself was tired and sleep deprived and not up for anything more strenuous than walking in the parks!

I was visiting England after fifteen years and though I can't say that I ever knew the city well, my general perception was that it had changed in some way from the city I had experienced before.  People seemed kinder, friendlier (at least in and around central London and Cambridge, where I stayed).  Second generation Indians (even first generation settlers) seemed more sure of themselves and their identity, and were more at ease while dealing with a 'desi'.  My experiences at Heathrow and with taxi drivers were much pleasanter than corresponding experiences in America (where somehow I feel people often seem to feel they have to prove something even in very brief interactions or conversations and there is a lot more latent aggression).

There was more poverty evident (the first time I saw people begging on the main streets of London) - a different kind of poverty from India.  Here, there is a lot more of it, but everyone on the streets (by and large) is Indian or even if they are from neighbouring countries, they look Indian.  In London, the beggars were all immigrants, and it seemed to me that several were educated and had seen good days at some moment.

Despite this, and despite the economic and political policy pressures, there was also a sense of ease in the atmosphere.  People were moving around, laughing, talking, smiling and - shopping- and not all were tourists!  Flowers hung from street lamps (and they were well tended).  "Flowers?  Friendliness?  London has changed!" said some of our friends.  Other Indians visiting from here have noticed it too.

The Wimbledon was in progress.  Unfortunately the ticket prices were astronomical.  Leander Paes and Martina Hingis played a terrific game though there weren't many people to watch them.  Some things had not changed!

The food was excellent (I have always enjoyed food in London and other parts of the UK except the really low priced street food and fast food chains).  Summer fruit was at its best.  There was a lot of organic and local produce available, which was very welcome.

A lot of new cuisines seemed popular.  One that we really liked was Pachamama on Thayer Street, that served Peruvian food.  I had never before tasted these flavours - they were unique and delicious.  Their wooden interior was also cheery and welcoming.

 A surprisingly good (and reasonable) restaurant was part of an Italian chain called Zizzi (we ran in here during a blustery evening, on Wigmore Street).  I found their summer desserts were the best I had in London during this stay.  Their pizzas were quite different from the usual, with multigrain dough and interesting vegetable toppings (every table had someone ordering a pizza, which is why we ordered ours!).

At tea time we often tucked into the cakes that the British are so good at making (perhaps part of the reason they sailed to India centuries ago)- moist, spice laden, with nuts or ginger or dried fruit.  This is an art we have not really mastered though many of these ingredients are readily available here.  Scottish salmon, oat biscuits, ham, Stilton - we enjoyed all these and more.

City birds!  Seagulls, starlings, pigeons...  An aggressive seagull chased a pigeon into our apartment one Sunday evening.  The pigeon was paralysed by fright and the windows were paralysed by years of not being opened.  We ourselves were partly paralysed by uncertainty - how should we get the bird out without it hurting itself and the baby?  We finally called the serviced apartment office staff (without much hope) and someone kindly came up and helped unjam the windows.  Seagulls were perched atop churches and pigeons, of course, thrived everywhere as they always have done.  I kept the windows closed when going out, not because of burglars (as most people advised me to) but because of the pigeons.

The weather was warm!  A heat wave was in progress and we needed fans!

Nora recommended a terrific bookstore called Daunt, with a different selection from the usual.  Waterstones (the big chain) was also better than many other international ones that I have encountered.  We found several old English favourites including Olga da Polga (by Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington bear).

London rates very high for baby friendliness (except for British Airways - but are flight companies ever baby friendly?  I think BA is particularly brusque or perhaps I just had an unusually difficult time with them).  Babies are out everywhere in the city (with prams designed to handle the streets and the weather).  Most restaurants have high chairs.  Baby food and baby wear are designed for comfort and practicality.  This made my stay and travel much easier than I anticipated.

I found people were also remarkably good and sensitive with Nayan.  This included all our friends as well as many passers by on the streets.  People smiled, nodded, talked kindly and gently, but no one yanked his thumb out of his mouth or gave constant advice or asked why he was or wasn't doing what he was supposed to.

In general, I was surprised by how liveable and likeable this part of London was.  Most Indian cities have become almost unliveable.  Though we all live here, there's a lot of effort involved in organizing simple day to day matters.  (Of course, things are much more affordable in India, in particular health care and some services but still the lack of concern for the average citizen and the lack of pride in our surroundings is something lamentable).

There was a fair bit of traffic, but there wasn't a constant din - no screech of brakes and loud impatient horns.  I could walk on the streets (pavements existed!) and go shopping with Nayan, without worrying about the pollution or the parking (yes, despite what Londoners feel, the air is much cleaner than Bangalore and infinitely better than Delhi).  My baby spent a lot of time entertaining himself by looking down at the stream of cars and red buses from our window, a habit he has retained (which is helpful here during the traffic snarls).

As it was easy to walk to very nice shops and restaurants, I did not use any public transport for my daily routine.  As I found my work being done in half the time, I managed to catch up on long lost sleep.  Evenings were peaceful and pleasant.  I could watch the trees swaying in the breeze.  Offices around us closed at a reasonable hour and people spilled onto the pavements, talking and drinking, but there was no loud music, no raucous chitter chatter, no mountain of garbage and plastic thrown on the streets.  A lot of cigarette smoke but that was about the worst of it!

The extra hours of daylight also meant we could walk a lot more in the evenings.  At night, the street where I stayed (Chiltern street) seemed to breathe easy and sleep peacefully.  I could see the silhouette of the brick walls and roofs slowly darkening and then the stars appearing above, while I drifted to sleep.  I almost expected to hear bells chiming in the distance!

For me, it was the perfect kind of holiday - with welcoming and caring friends, lovely conversations, nice walks, wholesome and delicious food and plenty of sleep.  I couldn't have asked for anything more.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The House Is Breathing

Many weeks of house cleaning seemed to result in nothing - masses of cobwebs were being swept off the ceilings, balls of dust emerged from all possible spots.  Mud covered the floor beneath the washing machine and so on.  I'm sure you get the idea.  All work seemed to vanish into a vacuum but still I toiled away (and asked the maids to toil away) everyday!  The garden too was choked with weeds, overgrown shrubs and fallen leaves.  A few weeds yanked up everyday, a few leaves cleared out - and finally, we are able to notice the effect.

Today, it seemed to me that the house was actually breathing.  It's clogged up pores seemed open and it was inhaling great gusts of air, with relief.  The garden too seemed filled with an air of satisfied calm.  Instead of the wasps (which I had been battling for several months), butterflies wafted in and hovered over some of the plants.  They stayed there even while I was working in the garden, fluttering very close to my face.

It's a nice feeling indeed!  The calm and contentment seems to diffuse into me too.  I feel waves of peace flowing in from time to time.  I can sense instantly the change in my breathing, reminding me of an old yoga lesson that I need to practice more.  We can calm our minds by regulating our breath and when the mind is calm and receptive, the spirit breathes its stillness and creativity (a sometimes a certain knowledge) into us.  It's very nice, however, to feel peaceful when one is not focussing on trying to make it happen.  All the other things then fall into place by themselves.

So, as my house breathes with ease, I do too, quite unconsciously.  And as the bamboo rustles and the butterflies flit in and out, my life seems to be filled with the best kind of beauty there is - the natural and effortless kind.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Food, Music And More - Some Memories

Yesterday we said goodbye to Chef Prashant, at Windsor Manor.  Low key and efficient in a very quiet way, he produced memorable meals for us and churned out buffets and banquet meals with ease.  We will miss him!

This got me thinking today of all the years we have been frequenting the buffets at the Windsor coffee shop and all the chefs with their diverse styles that we have met there.  How long has it been?  It's hard to say, for time slips by unnoticed.  A decade perhaps?  Certainly a long, long time but it seems like just a few years.

It began when I got a call asking if I was interested in a card offering discounts on the ITC hotels.  I unhesitatingly said, "No."  Why would I want such a card?
"Well, it's a very good deal," said the very persistent lady at the other end.  I said I would think about it, and my husband and I did.  Finally we decided to try it out for a year as the hotel is very close to where we stay.

That's how it began.  For people interested in trying different kinds of food, it was a good deal, especially the buffet, which we stuck to.

The hotel business in those days was booming.  Tourism was still doing well.  The buffet was large and lavish.  It's been cut down now but it still meets all our requirements and more.  There was an accordion player who would play wonderful European folk and dance music.  (Thus began our friendship with Prakash - a talented musician, one of the few accordion players left in the country, who plays just because he likes to.)

The chef in charge of the buffet at the time was Chef Mazdiyar, a genial, sociable Parsi, who would flit around, chatting with whoever caught his fancy.  We would get tons of Khow Suey and a clear soup with lots of vegetables, in those buffets.  Also prawns in some kind of sweet orange sauce, which he seemed to like.  I got a recipe for vegetable stock from him, which was very handy (as it's tricky to make a flavourful stock with just vegetables).  When he left he organized a week long Parsi food festival, using old family recipes - including everything down to pickles and chutneys.  It was an interesting and new array of food for us.

The next chef, Gaurav, specialized in Indian food, and so we saw a change in the menu style.  A lot of new and different curries, pullaos and biryanis were made.  One that I remember vividly was a prawn biryani from Odisha.  The orange sauce had been replaced by  a spicy tomato one, for the prawns.  A particularly memorable meal we had at this time was on the eve of the Bangalore marathon.  We sat surrounded by Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, who stuffed themselves with carbs (mostly noodles and white bread) while we were eating a very delicate Awadhi chicken curry made with almonds along with traditional breads.

Gaurav was a very spontaneous and enthusiastic chef.  I remember calling him once to request for a birthday cake (part of the 'card package'!) and instead of giving what I believe chefs are instructed to for these occasions, he suddenly launched into a description of a cake with nougat and cream and what not - and proudly produced it!  I was a bit embarrassed but very happy to receive this quite different and delicious cake.

The next chef we met was Prashant.  He specialized in Western food, I think with a generally European slant.  I remember the first time we had the buffet at this stage, there was a white gazpacho soup, which I had never tasted or heard of.  The spicy tomato sauce was now changed to a cocktail sauce, which was terrific.  A new chicken and green papaya soup showed up, which was also very nice.  What I like most about Prashant's cooking was the simplicity of style combined with the high quality of ingredients.  He also reintroduced many of the classic combinations.

In this day of innovation where creativity is greatly rated, I think people forget that classics are classics for a reason.  There is a timelessness about great recipes that must be respected.  Pastry may be painted in different hues and food may be garnished fancily but ultimately, the proof of a pudding is in the eating.  Commercial food establishments (and perhaps buffets) are particularly susceptible to these changing styles, but through many of the years that Prashant was around, I'm glad he didn't yield to this view and served many basic, delicious things like home grown sprouts (mustard sprouts in a green salad, which was tossed with lemon juice and olive oil was one of his simple and delicious dishes).  His stint at the coffee shop was the longest of all chefs when we were around, hence my descriptions also contain more about this style of food.

After this, budget cuts increased.  The hotel embarked on a green policy, wherein they said buffets were wasteful and a fixed buffet like menu would be offered but people could select what they liked and it would be freshly made and sent from the kitchen.  This was the time that we had several nice stir fries (especially with pork and lamb), prawn fried rice and so on.  We were also thankful for Prashant's unabashed joy in cooking with pork, which is one of our favourite meats and is not easy to cook just right. In fact it rarely appears on most menus.

This phase did not last long and we were back to the regular buffet and some nice grills.  A hot stone sizzler option appeared, which was also a terrific new addition.

Then one day, my husband found himself in charge of organizing a banquet to celebrate a special event - the golden jubilee of the Ramachandran plot (a path breaking calculation conceived by Professor GN Ramachandran that was worthy of a Nobel prize, which it never received).  A host of notable scientists from around the world had been invited.  Our thoughts turned to the Windsor poolside, with its charming ambience, and to Prashant, who was still around, and in charge of banquets.

The Windsor managers were too busy to meet us in our personal capacity.  "You are just footfalls in this hotel," they said, with a (charming) smile.  We shrugged and let it be.  Perhaps it was not destined.  A little enquiry from Prakash set the ball rolling again.  And this time, we managed to negotiate and book and meet with Prashant, who offered (and produced) an outstanding and truly elegant buffet at the poolside.

Many people remember this with happiness and satisfaction.  Everything was wonderfully presented and served.  The final flourish came from Prakash, who began playing some Russian tunes when an elderly Russian scientist came up.  The scientist was so moved that he spontaneously broke out into song; his joyful notes reverberated down to the lobby, making people smile.

So, here's to all the people I have known in Windsor, who have worked behind the scenes, handing out happiness through food, music and more.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Curious Evening

Dear Readers, 
I thought I would share one of my recent real life letters with you (while bemoaning the fact that hospitality has gone the way of the blockbuster movies - all fluff and very little substance, but I suppose there are some people who want this otherwise it wouldn't sell).  As I have often felt, truth is stranger than fiction.
A cheery weekend (and month end) to all!

Dear Sanjay, Amar, Nitash,
I was just thinking of you after a somewhat weird dinner that Rags and I had this Sunday.  Do you remember the trek we took together?  The one where Sanjay got a large number of thorns embedded in various parts?  (In fact, each time I read out. Dr. Seuss's book, which says "No Pat, No.  Don't sit on that!" I remember this).  The one where Amar got red in the face and sat down saying "I can't do anymore.  I'm going to die," and refused to budge.  The one where Rags confidently said, "This is the path" and led us to a dead end barricaded by a tall wall that we had to climb.  (Nitash wasn't there but this is such a Nitash story that I'm quite certain he was hovering somewhere in spirit, probably behind Sanjay's shoulder, saying, "Saale,..")

Anyway, that was the one, after we which went to Sanjay's hotel to spruce up.  That's where this tale begins.  I can't recall much of the place except that Sanjay's room was weirdly done up all in black but otherwise seemed quite normal.  Anyway, Rags was offered a discount card to eat in the same place, so off we went last Sunday.  It was a rather strange experience, like entering a series of Bollywood sets.  The dinner itself was okay except for Nayan's high chair.  This was a chair in which he could do pretty much everything, such as twist, stand, dive down to the floor etc. but he couldn't reach the food as there was no tray.  As he now insists on eating on his own when we are eating, his food had to be handed to him, which he would eat grain by grain.  All in all, a fairly time consuming affair, which got more and more surreal as time went by.

After dinner I had to walk Nayan while Rags was paying the bill and we went to the swimming pool area.  Far from being tranquil, this seemed like a hot spot for a seventies Hindi spy film.  The kind where a man sits down and pulls out a paper which says NO17 (I don't know if you remember this terrific movie).  There were disco lights and remix music and smoky air and a gushing multicoloured fountain and really strange, shifty looking characters standing around, smoking and drinking. Fortunately we didn't have to walk very long and I was quite relieved when we were leaving.

The night was still young though.  As we reached the valet parking area, we realized that the security guys had not given us any receipt; they had been in too much of a hurry to shoo us out of the way of the big cars.  Of course, they hotly denied this and glared suspiciously at us, as though we were a bunch of car thieves. Our appearances, sadly, did nothing to help.  Rags looked nothing like his ID card. He was dressed in his best lab attire (the kind he wears on Sundays).  I was wearing dark brown trousers with grey patches at the knees (from crawling with Nayan) and a crumpled T shirt.  Nayan's attire was fine but he was in seagull mode at that time.  He always gets very excited at seeing cars, and being close to a parking lot had him flapping his hands and screeching each time he saw a car.  To top it all, neither of us remembered the complete car number!

Anyway, they took down all our details and eventually fished out the car.  Fortunately it was not a red BMW but a small grubby yellow thing with a baby seat at the back.  So we were finally allowed to drive off.

Discount card or not, I swore never to return to the hotel.  But I have changed my mind.  I think it would be a terrific place to have a party - the Hare Krishna Hare Ram or Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (Hindi films of the seventies) kind, when you all are here next.  After we are done with scaling walls and walking into thorny shrubs and so on.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Snakes, Strains and Silver Linings

What a whirlwind of a month!  I have barely had time to catch my breath and my resolution of writing more often has been scattered to the winds!  Perhaps this is the peak of the chaos and things will settle down!  Perhaps...

It began with strained nerves of all kinds.  My old maid, whose work seemed to be deteriorating as days went by, began resenting my continuous harping.  I tried to redivide the work so she would do less (hopefully better!) but this didn't work and she just announced suddenly that if I wasn't satisfied with her work, I should find someone else more suited to my requirements.  Well, when things reach this stage, it's hard to turn back or pretend that one hasn't heard.  Somewhat reluctantly I set out firing her.  I felt a little guilty as she had been working here for six years and things are not easy for maids.  There is also the gnawing doubt about whether they have changed or you, and how reasonable or unreasonable each one has been, and so on.  But things took their course and a new silent and efficient maid took her place.

The old maid was bubbly and cheerful and I thought we would all miss that.  But I find, at the end of a few weeks that a new kind of peace has taken the place of all the sound and that I am greatly relieved as my house is cleaned first thing in the morning and I have the rest of the time to myself.  At the moment, a kind of spring cleaning is going on, with masses of dust being cleared, and it feels good, both physically and mentally.

Soon after this episode, my husband had to travel and the day he left, I began on a toothache.  This grew progressively worse and I eventually couldn't chew without distress.  Quite by chance (and not for the first time) I had been reading a thriller at the time- 'Nerve' by Dick Francis.  This helped pull me through a painful week, by realizing that I was not being trampled upon by racing horses or being hounded by fiends or maniacs, and that I would survive the pain!  Once my husband returned to babysit, I visited the dentist who grimly said, "There's nothing there but pus.  The nerve is completely infected.  A root canal is required".

The procedure itself was all right but once the anaesthesia wore off, the pain almost knocked me out.  Not being able to take any strong medicine at this time, I lived on crocin, which cut down the pain by a mere fraction.  I called the doctor to tell him I was in a bit of pain and he said, "It's not going to be 'a bit of pain', but 'intense pain' for some time".  Strangely enough, once I knew that, I was able to handle it.  No real silver lining to this story, only a zirconium one!  But this tooth has been troubling me for many months now and I was glad that the infection did not erupt while I was away in England.  I go back tomorrow for my final sitting and hope that it's all done.

After this, it was time to deal with the new milkman who was supposed to deliver organic milk.  One morning he just didn't show up and after calling, he appeared one hour later.  "Madam, I came this morning but I saw a snake here.  A very big one near your house.  So I got scared and ran away."  "Big snakes are good", I told him.  "It must have been a rat snake, not a cobra or anything venomous."  "Beside," I added, reassuringly, "No one has been bitten here in the last twenty years or so."  Then I crossed my fingers and hoped he would be back the next day.  And he was!

So, all in all, I can say that I and my house are now in better order and ticking along more efficiently than a month ago (I hope)!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

What's New Now?

I've been busy for the last couple of months - initially, preparing for my summer vacation (which I took in the first two weeks of July), the first such holiday with a little baby.  Winding down things, finishing chores, getting rounds of baby vaccinations, packing, closing the house and so on.  After that, I was busy unwinding- too busy to work on the blog!  I'm glad to return to it and will try and write a little more in this coming year.

So, what's new now that I need to write about?  My vacation, of course, which was wonderful.  The kind that one associates with 'coming home from school' when one is a child.  A few days spent with people I loved meeting, in the quiet centre of busy London and Cambridge.  Splendid weather (despite the initial 'heat wave' that did the rounds in England), some wonderful food, enjoyable conversation.  And best of all, my baby was well.  He had fun too - seeing new sights, meeting people (all of whom were very good to him) and doing different things.  He crawled (on real grass!) in parks, excitedly watched big red buses going by and found bits of furniture of his height to hone his walking skills.  He tasted, for the first time, fresh strawberries, apricots, tiny sweet green peas, mint, thyme - and liked them all.

I walked, slept as I have not done for over a year, had thought provoking conversations, went for some very nice (yes!) acupuncture sessions and felt wrapped in peace and harmony.

We're back now and it's been the kind of holiday that lingers with us (despite horrendous flights back and tons of paperwork for visas on the way in).  I'm recharged and I find a warming glow of positivity that helps me deal with all the work that has accumulated over here.

I believe that the mind changes many things for us- not just the way we view things but at a physical level too.  At least this is how I interpret some of my experiences.  While on vacation, I had a lot of time to think about the things I'd like to change in my little world here - what causes me stress and how to avoid it.  Fortunately, almost all of it just depended on seeing things in a different way and moving towards organising my day to suit me rather than one based on the vagaries of the monsoons, the maids or migraines (after getting a migraine on my return flight, I realised that I can probably handle migraines anywhere, until that is, I find a way to completely get rid of them).  And once I had decided that, it's funny how things seemed to click into place.

I do have a small migraine now, but I am managing to write, which in itself is remarkable.  Apart from this, I have finally (and rather quickly) found a milkman who will deliver organic milk, something that had been eluding me for years.  My new (and excellent) maid wanted an additional job and seems willing to take over more responsibilities here, freeing me up to do things I would really like to (also freeing me from trying to extract work from my old, unwilling maid - something that has been troubling me for a while).

After many months of fruitless searching, I stumbled upon my old clothes (without looking for them - I had given up on this exercise) yesterday - lying peacefully under my nose all the time!  This frees me from wearing outsize post pregnancy clothes and it's a nice feeling.  Perhaps I will find my old gold earrings in the same way sometime…

I have planned to buy a few gadgets - big and small - that I had used in England and found very convenient - to ease some of the work at home, and am going through brochures and descriptions of these things.

What's new for my baby?  He smiles as he sleeps, and perhaps he's dreaming of red buses (which always get him excited).  He has returned knowing he can handle ten hour flights (and hours before and after) without being allowed to get out of his seat.  He brings back an armful of the most exciting and intriguing story books (that he loves) and a yellow- green- blue quilted patchwork elephant that now resides happily with his other close friends - a red platypus-alligator and an orange lion.  Lying on my shelf are two cowry shells, which fell off a bag and which I had no particular use for.  I now think they will make very nice eyes for this elephant - wise, soft and gleaming gently in the light - reminding us of the mysterious and marvellous ways in which this world moves.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A World Apart

There's nothing quite like a baby to train you to live in the present moment.  To let go of preconceived notions and take life as it comes- in its merry mad whirl and its flurry of excited screeches, protesting howls, wet nappies, mud splattered clothes and contented smiles.

Letting go comes much easier to my baby than it does to me.  He stands shakily, holding on to a small shelf for support, takes a few tottering steps along the floor, then lets go of the shelf.  My heart begins a wild thump and I rush forward to catch him as he collapses.  He smiles contentedly, gets up and is ready for more.  (I don't think I am, but I don't really have a choice).  Yes, letting go is harder than one thinks, if one thinks too much about it.

We live in a different kind of world these days, fogged up a bit by sleep deprivation, but an interesting world all the same.  A world where adult strangers come and yank the baby's thumb out of his mouth by way of greeting, during our morning walks.  (I am now used to this, and so is the baby, so we pay no attention and politely wait for the grown ups to leave.)  A world where people cannot imagine that the baby has no teeth yet and cannot bite into hard foods- yet somehow he finds food of his choice, and it seems to keep him well nourished.  A world where he has to wear eye patches for a couple of hours each morning (as he has a slight squint) and everyone asks why, how, provides theories on how the squint may have developed and how we should or should not fix it - and the doctors advise us on how to put the patches on while he is sleeping for he will never let us do it while awake.  But in reality, he sits quietly while we put the patch on, then immediately gets back to the extremely busy life unfolding around him.  He is a light sleeper and often wakes up smiling - and putting a patch on him while he is asleep always brings about howls.  So- yes- others don't always know best, even if they are doctors or well wishers.  The gross generalization here is that gross generalizations don't work.

Yes, we live in a very different world and at some time we will come down to earth with a bump (hopefully not in a gorse bush as Pooh often does, but drifting gently down like a little glider).  At this time, our world is populated with an assortment of animals and characters that are not really human.  We listen to Pooh's poems, look at the Cat in the Hat doing his amazing balancing acts, wonder what Green Eggs and Ham would taste like.  We swim with belugas, cross rivers with wildebeest, snuggle up to woolly and soft armadillos and pink rabbits.  We are at eye level with grass, muddy puddles and twigs.   We lie on our backs and wonder where the sunlight comes from and what causes shadows to be the way they are.  And when all that is done, we call it a day and fall suddenly and soundly asleep.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Two Tales On Reincarnation

Reincarnation is a theme rich with possibilities for mystery writers, and there have been several well known novels and hauntingly eerie films on this subject.  Murder mysteries wherein the victim returns (often in human form, sometimes not!) to identify the killer are particularly common.

However, the gentler kind of stories are rare- those that deal more with the confusion that can arise when people are confronted with the possibility of reincarnation, rather than actual details or gory incidents.

I don't personally have any views on reincarnation as the world contains many things beyond my sphere of knowledge.  It is not a subject I find important enough to dwell on; my present life is demanding enough of my time and thoughts!  Having said that, I found two nice stories that use this theme.  I recently finished reading one of them and the other has been a favourite for many years.

Alexander McCall Smith has written a novel, 'The Novel Habits of Happiness', set in Scotland, which  (in his usual style) is about many things, including a little boy who feels he lived elsewhere, in another life, and all the events that follow.  The tale is interesting because though clearly fiction, something like this could easily (or unexpectedly) happen to anyone, I feel.  Coincidence?   Fate?  Churning of our incredibly complex (and often undecipherable) mental mechanisms?  The line between fantasy and reality can get blurred depending on people's interpretation of facts or their perception of their environment and themselves.

The older book I referred to is 'The Golden Fortress' (Sonar Kella) by Satyajit Ray (which he subsequently made into a wonderful film, now available on DVD).  This is a part of the Feluda detective series (written for children or more specifically, 'young adults' as people now like to say).  It begins with a child's recreation of a world very different from what he has ever been in.  The trail leads the characters all the way up to north India and provides an interesting glimpse of life and travel in a pre-cell phone, pre- fast car, pre- fast plane age (the sweet seventies).

For those who like gentle, meandering stories that deal with people's thoughts and emotions, a little travel and a hint of humour, both these books are recommended.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Nothing In Particular

This blog is about nothing in particular- I have just managed to snatch a few moments to sit and write.  It's cloudy outside and, in the garden, my lilies are slowly budding and blossoming - white tendrils of spider lilies, deep yellow mango coloured lilies, little mauve oniony ones and more.  I have a whole garden full of lilies now as they are low maintenance and I discovered that the monkeys don't touch them.

I have just finished baking a deep dark chocolate cake for my tea.  It is tender and deeply chocolatey - baked on low heat for a long time.

For lunch, we are to have a salad with cherry tomatoes, crisp lettuce, feta cheese and a little olive oil- served along with a small pizza with peppers and pineapple.

I have just finished The Three Musketeers and am  slowly savouring an Agatha Christie.

My baby is asleep.  When he wakens, we will crawl all over the floor and then hit the books, which both of us enjoy very much.  We read Pooh's songs, The Cat in the Hat, The Gruffalo and look at lots of interesting cookbooks learning about Mexican, Mediterranean and Chinese cuisines.

Yes, it's a busy but satisfying Sunday.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Carpenter Comes Home

One of the nice things about living in India is the number of different kinds of workers who are able to make house calls, some at very short notice and at an affordable cost.  Not all may be equally competent but we are fortunate in knowing a few who always manage to solve our problems (and of course some who manage to make a mess of things! - but those we obviously stay far away from).

One such person is our carpenter, Farooq, who has been visiting us for over a decade.  He rolls up (not always very punctually, but at some moment of the day!), carrying his little kit of nails, a measuring tape and a small drill, with which he is able to take care of a large number of our troubles.  He has a little pencil stuck behind his right ear and he borrows a small scrap of paper when he comes, to write down dimensions.  We ask for his help not just with woodwork but all kinds of things in the house and he provides very simple, practical solutions.  He works quietly and efficiently and is always concerned that I should not be inconvenienced in any way while he is working.

He has helped baby proof our house by fitting some gates which had to be assembled but came without any instruction manuals.  Our doors, which have a tendency to slam shut with the breeze, were stabilized by means of little hooks which attached them to the walls (they have steel frames so nothing can be hammered into them).  He has made an endless array of shelves to suit alcoves of varied shapes and dimensions, sliding doors for lofts which stood gathering dust, stools that neatly slid under our kitchen counter and so on.

Yesterday he trundled in to cockroach-proof our kitchen shelves.  This is an ancient set of shelves that are so porous that I believed cockroaches might be dwelling within.  I thought we might need a new set.  But he just cleaned them up and said he would seal all gaps between the shelves and the wall, which was where the cockroaches lived.

The next thing I wanted was a new lock for the front door.  Our old one would keep getting stuck.  This was tricky because of those wondrous steel frames on our doors, which require locks to be welded on and therefore new locks to be of the same size as the old ones.  He looked at the door and said the lock was fine, it was the door which was misaligned as some of the hinges had come off!

So finally nothing new had to be bought; he sat down and assembled a small baby bassinet which we were going to give away (again without an instruction manual).  My baby (who has an inordinate fondness for all things mechanical) crawled around, watching him and playing with some pieces of wood.

The carpenter worked for an hour or so - drilling, fitting, cleaning, nailing, hammering and so on.  Then had his customary snack and drink (which I always like to serve, this time it was lychee juice and cashewnuts) and said goodbye.  For all this he charged five hundred rupees (less than ten dollars), despite the fact that he had come on a weekend, at short notice and that he doesn't really earn a huge amount each month.  After this he got onto his scooter, tool kit and all, and headed out for his next job of the day, in good cheer.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Thoughts On Teachers

I recently came across a lovely little quote by William Yeats that triggered many memories: Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

This is so perfectly worded that there is nothing really that I can add, but it makes me think of my teachers - some exceptional ones that I have been fortunate enough to come across.  

My mother was probably my first such teacher, though I didn't know it then.  She taught me a few basic principles of how to deal with life and then left me alone to figure out the specifics.  I could always approach her but she rarely interfered especially when it seemed that I was able to tackle things on my own.  

Of school, I remember not very much of specific learning - the bucket filling kind doesn't stay too long, it dribbles out over time (though is easily refilled, if one really wants).  I did learn how much I enjoyed writing and reading, and in this I was encouraged by teachers who knew their subjects.  

From my grandfather I learnt how to try and take everything in my stride and maintain an even keel in stormy waters.  I spent many years growing up in my grandfather's house and I remember he always had time to sit with us at mealtimes and go for walks in the evenings.  He was actively involved in his business at the time and there were many stressful moments (as I now recollect) but he left them behind when he sat at the table with us.

Life moves in unexpected ways, offering us choices and options - requiring decisions, sometimes rather drastic, lifestyle changing ones.  Again, at crucial moments during my education, it was not experts in academic subjects but other kinds of teachers who helped me decide on the path suitable for myself.  They did this not by suggesting options but by allowing me to relax and look inwards and see for myself what I wanted to do.  Notable amongst these are Nora, a friend and practitioner of five element acupuncture and (Masterji) Vishwanath, a teacher of yoga.  They rekindled a spark which was already there, but which I thought I had lost and didn't know how to find.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Trekking In Tekal

Bangalore is surrounded by hilly outcrops, streams, rivulets, patches of forest and other places where one can spend a day trekking, climbing or swimming.  Of course, these have become more inhabited, polluted and/or crowded with visitors over the years.  One exception is the mammoth rock cluster called Tekal.  Unbroken by regular paths or green cover, it looks more daunting perhaps than it actually is.  There are no religious trails or holy sites at the top of the hill, so the number of visitors is relatively small.  It is, of course, a haven for rock climbers, and this is how my adventures on Tekal began – and continued- each trip being memorable for its uncomfortable moments (and also, once I relaxed, for the stark beauty of the place).

The first time I visited, perhaps twenty years ago, was with my husband and some of his friends who were keen rock climbers.  By keen I mean that one of them won first position in the state wall climbing contest.  Along with her were two others who didn’t do too badly in the contest either, one has now started a full time trekking company, and so on.  I myself am no climber and have a very average head for heights, so you can imagine my initial feelings when I saw rock upon rock that I had to clamber over.  

Appearances are deceptive in Tekal; though it initially looks insurmountable, almost everyone reaches the top (and returns relatively unscathed!) for there are just a few tricky sections, and the rocks are not as slippery as they might appear.  The tricky sections, of course, look innocuous, and vice versa, so one really needs to stop judging a rock by its looks.  One also needs to realize that one will not slip and fall through the cracks and spaces between rocks that one has to leap over.  Then you can relax and enjoy the view!

On my first trek there, I was lagging behind, trying to get familiar with the feel of the rocks.  It didn’t matter how slow I was, for I would eventually reach a point where everyone else was standing, working out some tricky manoeuvres on a rock.  Here I would catch my breath and wait till they finished and then lag behind some more.  In the middle of our journey we met two barefoot boys from an adjacent village, who happily leaped (higher and faster than what perhaps was necessary) and periodically held out their hands to try and get me to move faster.  Hands were a big no-no amongst the regulars (even your own hands, when descending slopes), so I valiantly and successfully managed on my own two feet.  I learnt some nice things in between all the adrenalin rush; the nicest being how to climb a chimney, which is perhaps the only kind of rock formation that I thoroughly enjoy climbing – wedging oneself into a crack and magically scaling two vertical cliffs.  I was bruised and exhausted at the end (having used my hands and butt to slide down steep slopes) and happy to finally take the local train back to the city.

The second time round was with my husband’s lab (also known as the RV lab) and I was mentally prepared for the trip.  My husband's cousin (who accompanied us), however wasn’t and she was a bit scared when we reached the base.  Having spent decades in convents, she let out a volley of Hail Mary’s; lo and behold rescue arrived in the form of a large goat, which materialized from nowhere and stood patiently behind her on a rock until she began to move forward.  And once she began to climb, there was no looking back; she managed without much trouble.  After scaling all the difficult parts, we were looking forward to ambling towards the top, when suddenly we heard a loud angry buzz and looked to see a cloud of wild bees heading our way.  The slopes that had taken half an hour to climb were descended in about two minutes – a true test of the power of the mind!  As soon as we began our descent, the bees left us alone and we looked back to see them flying back towards their giant hives that we had not noticed earlier.

The next trip was also with the RV lab with the addition of one student who was not part of the lab, but who joined us that day.  He was a pleasant fellow with a habit of ambling aimlessly along.  In those days, I generally went at the very end of the line, partly because I liked to go at my own pace and partly because I didn’t want anyone to be left stranded anywhere.  So I let this fellow go ahead but it took me twice as long, especially after we all climbed down some ravine (why we did this I have no idea, probably just for the experience of it).  Anyway, everyone climbed back up and this man was still ambling below, humming to himself for a while.  Even I began to get restless waiting down there especially because dark clouds were gathering overhead.  Finally he began to climb, got stuck in several places, and had to be pulled to the top by some others.  At this stage, it began to rain.  Wet rocks are terribly slippery.  I wondered what to do.  “Throw your shoes up and climb barefoot,” yelled an unfazed RV.  And so I did.  The first two throws were unsuccessful; I couldn’t get them high enough and I hoped the shoes wouldn’t fall into some crack within the rocks.  Third time lucky, and I managed to climb up and once the rain subsided, climb-slide down along with the rest of the group.  After that I have given up my polite ways of ‘pehle aap’.

The next time round was also a trip with the RV lab, I remember one of the research fellows being extremely scared while going up.  He was convinced he wouldn’t live to tell the tale and promised everyone a round of (soft) drinks to celebrate, if he returned unharmed!  Perhaps everyone ensured he did, or perhaps he had a safe and smooth ascent and descent, for drinks were generously doled out at the end of that trip.  Everything was humming along for me, and I was third last this time (the second last person being RV, who was trying out some tricky rocks as a last minute treat, and the last person an old friend who was called Hua, who had a knack of attracting solitary flying kites wherever he went – once the kite began circling above him, nature and gravity would take over and the inevitable would occur.  His name was unfortunately convenient for people – everyone would look up at the sky and ask “Hua, hua?” (Hua, has it happened?) – and he would often nod sheepishly.  But I digress.  At this moment, he was busy cleaning himself with some stalks of grass and a handkerchief). 

Suddenly (and I don’t know how), I found myself tripping and sliding many feet down.  I leaned forward to slow my fall and the friction on the rocks did the rest.  After the initial shock, I didn’t mind too much; it had saved me the trouble of walking down some especially steep sections.  My hands were grazed but not terribly.  It was only when I stood up that I realized that my clothes had been torn to shreds at the back.  I wondered what to do.  “Exchange T shirts with Hua who is just a size bigger than you,” muttered an unfazed RV.  I waited for Hua and then requested a swap of T shirts (fortunately the kite had only dumped on his head and not his clothes; of course I would have taken his shirt in any condition).  His long T shirt amply covered my backside and he gallantly donned my tattered one).  When we reached the bottom of the hill, everyone was focussed on their drinks and didn’t pay any attention to our strange garb.  Once more I boarded the local train with a sigh of pleasurable relief.

It has been many years since I visited Tekal but a recent video from the RV lab reminded me of my previous experiences.  It is quite a terrific snippet of a long trek, and the photographer, Siddharth Patel, has kindly allowed me to use it here.  I attach a link to the site:

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