India 2016: A Travel Diary : Part 1

Returning after almost 4 years to India, on a partly vacation but mostly work trip for the first time in 26 years, I get a different perspective of this big, complicated, complex, pulsing, alive, in turns frustrating and enchanting, country.

India grabs you by the scruff of your neck and makes you pay attention—there’s no ignoring her nor being indifferent to her—she won’t let you. You are forced to feel—angry, elated, happy, content, frustrated—sometimes all in the span of a day.

In no particular order, here are all the feelings and emotions that run through my mind as I navigate this ancient, modern, fighting, big democracy!

The pain and the pleasure:

The frustrating thing about India”, said the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, “is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”

And it’s this phenomenon, while nothing new for India, and certainly nothing new for me as I lived the first 25 years of my life here, that really hits me this time.

I enjoy a luxurious meal in star hotels, and on my way out, am faced with dire and unspeakable poverty within a hundred feet. I get depressed after every great meal.

I travel in cars and while the cars are stopped in heavy traffic, children as young as 5 or 6 risk their lives, stepping in between the stopped cars, selling flowers, trinkets etc. I hate bargaining with them and end up paying whatever they ask. My justification is at least they’re not begging.

The conundrum is, am I really helping them or hurting them? Who is the money going to? Shouldn’t they be doing homework or be in school? Why do some things never change in this country? I don’t mean to pontificate, or sound like the typical NRI visiting and criticizing the homeland—really, I don’t. It’s just that there’s something about this that just weighs heavily on me this time for some reason.

And the dogs! Now that I’m a dog person thanks to my daughter’s mini dachshund Kashew, my heart breaks at every street dog that’s lying on the street, not quite begging, and not aggressive, but clearly resigned to its fate and lives on the charity of whoever cares to feed them.

(Raj absolutely put his foot down on giving them our leftover breakfast: ‘I don’t want 10 dogs chasing us every time we step on to the street’ and so we worked out a compromise and give the food to the grocery shop guy at the apartment who agreed to feed them.)

The other thing that I struggle with is how easy it is to get cheap manual labor for almost anything. I know that sounds like I have lost my mind, especially when I think of how I complain about how expensive it is to get anything done by a person back in the States.

But hear me out. While I understand that it’s the practical thing to use manpower in a country whose population is second only to China, and this is how economies work, I’m still mildly discomfited and shocked every time I get served—from having a cup of coffee delivered to wherever I’m sitting in the office, to getting almost anything delivered with just a phone call.

Let me explain this with some context. There are two rituals I observe every time I visit. The day after I land, my dad takes me to Adyar Anandha Bhavan, popularly known as A2B, a south Indian fast food place. (This time it got delayed by a day because I went straight to my sister’s place in Bengaluru. My sister mentioned that my dad couldn’t wait to take me there!)

The other one is shopping while jet lagged–everyone should try it. Sometimes I look at stuff I buy after I’m back home in the States and have no memory of buying it! Anyway, after a hearty mini tiffin at A2B loaded with ghee, my youngest sister takes me shopping. These are two rituals I must observe, and observe I do, every time. So off we went, the day after I landed here, having packed off my little niece and nephew to school. (The six year old niece very generously offered to stay home from school to help me shop).

I bought a few saris, and needed the blouses made and had no time to get it done in Bengaluru. Now I’m in Pune, on work. So we went this weekend, to the famous Lakshmi Road in Pune (“you have to experience Lakshmi Road at least once” said a colleague), in search of a tailor.

For Chennaites, imagine Ranganathan Street during festival time—or anytime, really. Lakshmi Road is Ranganathan street on steroids. We went in a car, past many shops, and many, many people. If we didn’t go in a car, all we would have had to do was stand at the starting point, and we would have been pushed by the people. And we found this place called Bizzeeland, suggested by a friend who knew a tailor there. It’s a 5-storey building, all five floors occupied by tailors. Imagine! 5 floors of just little tailor shops. It’s a dream for an Indian woman.

We told the driver (yes, we had a car and a driver provided to us) to come back in an hour or so and walked to the store. By now, I’ve been here for a week, and am not paralyzed when trying to cross the streets and can make it across, albeit with a death grip on Raj’s hand. And to think that just 25 years ago, I used to make fun of the returning desis frozen on the streets with panicked expressions! Karma is a bitch! But then I digress.

My friend had called ahead for her tailor to come down to the ground floor to meet us and take my measurements for the blouse. He delivered it the next morning (which in itself is a tiny miracle by US standards), it needed some alterations, and back we went to Lakshmi Road, braving the crowds. He made the alterations while I waited, and tried on. Raj casually mentioned that it was hard to make the trip to his place, and he immediately offered to bring it to our place the next day, with a catalog for the remaining blouses.

Ladies, haven’t we all seriously dreamed about this exact scenario? And yet, I felt awful that he had to come to our apartment on his holiday (the tailor said: “tomorrow all shops are closed, it’s a holiday for Lakshmi road. I’ll come to your place with the blouse.”)

While it was a dream come true, there were also these tiny pinpricks on my conscience. If I had confessed it to Raj, who’s getting a little tired of my sometimes misdirected conscience rearing its head about every couple of hours, he would have said “you’re helping him by giving him business—don’t be so dramatic!”

He would probably be right.

But the child labor and the dogs! That still hurts.

lakshmi-road

Lakshmi Road in all its glory!

The ugly:

The thing that infuriates me, and that has not changed one bit is this: everywhere I go, especially in shops, the men seem to think my face is roughly about 6 inches south of where it actually is. Raj tries to tell me not to dress in sleeveless blouses or western attire, even baggy tshirts when I go to places like Lakshmi Road. But me being me, I refuse to alter the way I dress. I think the leery jerks need to change their behavior, and treat women as fellow human beings and not as sexual objects. The tailor, who had every opportunity to be a leery jerk on the other hand, was a gentleman!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The underlying attitude has deep roots–movies that glorify girls falling in love with ‘bad’ boys, age old attitude of ‘boys will be boys’ and countless other forms of cultural cancer, and has manifested itself in many ugly forms–Nirbhaya, Jyoti, and countless others who have given their lives come to mind.

Pure Joy/ Sigh of Relief:

The restaurant scene has pretty much exploded in India. It’s truly a mecca for food lovers. The variety of cuisines, the service, the convenience of not having to ask “does this have any meat stock?” on everything you order! Love you, sweet India!

Rajdhani

A resplendent meal at Rajdhani Restaurant – traditional Rajasthani/Gujarati meal of many courses!

Hot punch Guava juice! Guava juice with a kick with chilies and spices...to die for!

Hot punch Guava juice! Guava juice with a kick with chilies and spices…to die for!

I’ll stop here for now, look for the next installment of my stream of conscious post soon as I head to my beloved Chennai this weekend!

 

 

 

 

On Temples And Me: A Meandaring Story

Those who know me well know that I am not a ritualistic or a temple person. It does not mean I am an atheist. I just don’t always feel moved by idol worship or rituals the way I have seen some do. I almost wish I did, but that’s beside the point.

Saying I’m spiritual sounds presumptuous. I believe in a higher power, I believe in karma and I believe we are all here for a reason. So then, it was a bit of a surprise to me when of late, I sometimes realize that I indeed, miss the temples in India. In Southern India, to be precise, as those are my only context for reference.

My relationship with all things spiritual has followed, at best, a zigzag path. When I was really young, as in under 13, I didn’t really think much about faith or god. As an obedient child, I went to the temple with my parents and participated in all the rituals that my mom performed, without really thinking, just as any child would. I dutifully accompanied my grandma to the temple “katha kalakshebam” sessions (discourses on Indian epics like the Ramayan and the Mahabharat).

My memories of this time are mostly about the food—we sisters all loved making modak (sweet dumplings) for Ganesh chathurthi, cheedai with lots and lots of butter for Gokulashtami, getting new clothes and fire crackers for Diwali, new clothes and pongal for pongal, putting away the books for one day (yay!) for Saraswati puja, starting music lessons on Vijayadasami. The common denominator was, is, food with Indian rituals. You can’t separate the two.

And then, in my early teen years, I sort of, kind of, stopped believing in a god. Thinking back, my circumstances, combined with the teen rebel in me, probably led me to this conclusion. But I didn’t like not believing, not having faith, and got over my imaginary fight with God soon—that’s what it was, a tantrum by a teen who was struggling with the stuff thrown at her and didn’t quite have an adult in her life to help her deal with it.

But, when I got over it, I started to wonder why I had to prove something by going to the temple, and to whom. In our family, (by this time we four sisters were living with our grandparents in Chennai while my father worked in Kenya, then Nigeria, and my mom used to shuttle between Madras and Nigeria) saying no to going to the temple was blasphemy. I did it anyway. Sometimes I would go. I didn’t mind the temple and the visit itself, but my heart wasn’t in it.

But then, I would also go to the Rama/Hanuman temple and go around the Hanuman murthy there a 108 times every time I had a tough exam or wished for something—like please let the Math teacher be sick tomorrow—nothing too serious, just enough to miss school. Yep, I was one confused and opportunistic child.

I should mention here that the street we lived in Purasawalkam, Chennai was named after a 2000 year old Chola period Siva temple that was walking distance from our house. The temple is the famous Gangadeeswarar Kovil. At the corner of G. Kovil Street, as it was known, and Purasawalkam High Road, there was a teeny tiny Ganesha temple—right there on the intersection, with heavy traffic, doing great business! Across from Ganesha was/is the Rama temple mentioned above. During festival seasons, the street literally never slept. We would hear loud devotional music early in the morning, as we studied for exams. A run to the market meant stopping for a minute at the Pillayar/Ganesha temple. We didn’t have a phone at home, and if I wanted to call a friend, I would go to the little shop next to the temple and pay 50 paise for a call.

As a thinking adult, I didn’t think I needed a temple to be a believer, to have faith. For the longest time, even as we raised kids here, this was my belief.

And then, when my in-laws visited us in the early 2000s, I asked them to bring me Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan as I had never had a chance to read it before. When I saw the five volumes, I was a bit skeptical about finding the time to read with a full time job and two young kids. But, as anyone who has ever read this epic of Kalki on the most famous of all Tamil kings, Raja Raja Chola would swear, I could not put them down until I had finished all of them. I was seriously seriously in awe, and in love, with this king and the masterpiece Brahadeswarar temple in Thanjavur/Tanjore that he built. On a subsequent trip to India, we made a trip to Tanjore with my in-laws. Though I had been to the temple in my high school days, the import and the significance of what Raja Raja had achieved, and that has withstood the test of time (1000 years as of 2010) only registered in my adult brain. As tourists, we were only able to see what’s allowed to the public. I would really really love to see the places in this temple that are only shown to people with special privileges.

I was so moved by this epic, I searched online and found a group of fellow fans of this wonderful epic and the king, and contributed to bringing it online as part of Project Madurai’s literary project. Volumes 1, 4 and most of 5 were proofread and edited by yours truly. That was how much this book, and the story behind the temple, and the greatest Chola emperor who ever walked the earth inspired me. I was happy to contribute in a tiny way to spread the word.

If you would like to read this, and other excellent literary works in Tamil, please visit the Project Madurai site here.

All about this architectural wonder here.

The only place outside of India, in my limited travels where I found such a temple in construction was when we went to Kauai in Hawaii. We happened to go to the monastery there. It was the perfect day. Raining lightly—it rains on and off every day in Kauai, they call it liquid sunshine. The monastery was on a few hundred acres (maybe?) and was set amidst beautiful woods. And, to our delight, a Hindu temple, in typical south Indian architectural style, was in the process of being built. They called it the Iraivan temple. Iraivan meaning God. The sculptors came from somewhere from the districts of Tamilnadu, and were working with granite. This was back in 2009. I am sure the temple is completed now, but strangely, it was more exciting to see it being built.

But back to the topic of this post, of late, as an empty nester, I find myself sometimes craving the temples as they are in the southern part of India. Not for the crowds or the Prasad or the darshan or the elaborate rituals. I get all of it here, and more in terms of social connections in the lovely Hindu temple in the city we live in.

What I crave is the feel of the hard granite under your feet, the stone cool to your feet in the mornings, and pleasantly warm in the evenings, the open and wide praharam around the inner sanctum with only the sky as the roof, the unique sound and the resonance of the temple bell, the sacred water perfumed with holy basil and other herbs so cool and delicious dropped in your palms with a tiny brass spoon (both my kids love this water), the dark garbagriham/inner most sanctum with the black idol of the deity gleaming, lit only by the flickering light of an oil lamp.

But mostly I miss the hush that automatically settles over you and makes you go inward and forget everything around you, the hush that makes you lose yourself in something above and beyond yourself. I am sure someone who reads this will say I need to meditate and find it inside of me, not outside. Maybe I will, if I can meditate for more than 5 minutes—the learning curve on that seems pretty steep, especially for someone with a monkey mind like moi. But until then, I am happy to find my inner peace in the stone temples of India.

Kauai Hindu Monastery and the Iraivan Temple during construction 

 

 

My most favorite of all temples, the Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore

 

From top to bottom, left to right: View from the main temple tower, frescoes added during the later years, me trying to capture the entire main gopuram, the temple tower/vimaanam, the temple’s tree aka sthala vriksham, the sacred bull/nandi made from a single stone

A frescoe of the emperor himself, with his guru 

Rajaraja_mural-2

 

Freedom!

On this independence day, I wish for everyone, but mostly for myself – freedom.

Freedom!

… from the monsters under your bed

… from doubts

… to know you’re limitless

… to be true to yourself

… to do the right thing

… to cut the ties that bind, choke and silence your music

… to walk away from rudeness, meanness and pettiness

… to let go of things without bitterness

… to accept success and failure with sangfroid

… to love with no expectations!

Happy Independence Day!

IMG_2471

 

Married To An Iyengar

My top ten list of things only someone who is married to an Iyengar will get…

10. The iyengar puliyodarai (tamarind rice) is hands down the best. No competition.

  1. Be prepared to do namaskarams* multiple times (4 to be exact – this was something I found out the hard way during our wedding ceremony. Boy was that a workout!)
  1. All iyengars are related to Hemamalini in some way, shape or form. Just kidding. They do take an unusual pride in their celebs though! My own kids have figured out they’re related to R Madhavan (the Tamil actor) through my brother-in-law’s wife who, I think, is a 2nd cousin to him.
  1. Madisar – Iyengar madisar is easier to drape, but I personally am partial to the Iyer madisar, which I think is more graceful.
  1. Chithiya does not mean what you think it does. After 26 years, I’m still a bit unclear on exactly what it means.
  1. Everything is Perumal!
  1. “Kai thirutharathu” means to cut vegetables. What exactly are we correcting?
  1. Iyers never serve rice first – it’s considered sacrilege to serve rice on an empty plate. Iyengars have no such rule. Although I’m used to it after 26 years, I still feel a twinge of guilt every now and then when I serve rice first with no other vegetables on the plate
  1. Of course, saathamuthu (rasam), karamudhu (evolved from kariamudhu,kari meaning vegetable), thirukkanamudhu (payasam/kheer), dhaddhiyonnam (thayir saadam/yogurt rice) all took a while to get used to. Especially dhaddhi which also means a dullhead!
  1. And the top thing I realized married to an iyengar is, they’re really not that different from the rest of us. I am very lucky to be married into this family of Iyengars – equally nerdy as ours if not more, funny to boot, and most of them accepted me readily.

My parents in law and my brother-in-law went on a road trip with us during one of our India trips to the Brihadeswarar temple in Thanjavur/Tanjore, because it had been my dream, completely debunking the myth that Iyengars cross the street when they see a Shiva temple. Even if we had to stop at Srirangam and pay our respects to Ranganatha Swamy first. Raj and his brother recently went around the Thiruvannamalai hill, all 14 kms of it, barefoot, to fulfill my mother in law’s wish/prarthanai on her 80th birthday.

To quote Scout Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee) “There’s just one kind of folks. Folks!”

IMG_3051

 

* The Indian custom of prostrating to the elders/gods to get their blessings, especially during our weddings, a ton of times

 

 

 

What Not To Do When Your Grown Children Visit

12307433_10156229259815510_563349262411965976_oLet’s face it. I am an Indian mom. That means, among other things, I am genetically programmed to begin and end every phone call and every conversation with my children and family with a couple of mandatory questions.

Did you eat? (It doesn’t matter what time of day it is)

What did you eat? (If the answer to the above is yes)

When and what will you eat? (If the answer is no)

Sometimes the call may be just about whether they ate or plan to eat.

My kids have accepted that this would always be so. It used to be so bad that I would ask them what they wanted for lunch, as they were finishing breakfast.

These days, when they come home for a weekend, I typically start asking what they want to eat when they’re home a couple of days prior to their visit. Between my two, and my son’s girlfriend, who, incidentally, is vegan and loves Indian food, I look forward to cooking for 3 children, and a husband who thinks I only make special things when the kids are home.

But on a recent weekend with the 3 of them visiting with 2 dogs, things got a little bit crazier than normal.

First, I had my Saturday morning French class (part of my plan on how to handle being an empty nester, blogged here), for which I was doing the homework the night before. Out went the precious “I’ll make all the make ahead stuff before they come home” time.

My husband was getting ready to go to India, and also running around to help pick up my son’s car and get the paperwork and insurance done, all on Saturday morning.

What happened was this: the kids, as much as they helped, couldn’t do it as fast as I wanted them to. We didn’t see Raj all of Saturday which made me pretty mad, as he was leaving for India early Sunday.

And, being an empty nester for the last 5 years, I had gotten used to making real simple meals for me and Raj, and to get back into heavy cooking for the weekend was not as easy as it used to be, how much ever I planned and tried to be efficient.

In the end, there was frustration all around. By lunchtime on Saturday, I was ready to call it a day. And I had three more meals to go.

And that got me thinking: maybe it shouldn’t be all about food. I loved feeding them food I knew they missed and they really enjoyed it, but I was determined to squeeze so much in a 48-hour period, and focused on just feeding them, that I had missed out on the most important thing: being there, being in the moment and simply enjoying their company.

We were a tired and grumpy bunch midway through the weekend. But hey, they were well fed!

After the 3 kids, 2 dogs and 1 husband left, a sudden quiet fell and there was an aching vacuum. Show over, the theater was empty and I had absolutely nothing to do, nobody to feed and nobody to talk to.

As I tried to think back to the last two and a half days, all I had was brief, fuzzy flashes of conversations:

  • my daughter telling me about her school, that I only half-listened to
  • My son telling about all the exciting things he was getting to do in his first job, and how cool Philly was
  • The questions I had meant to ask and never did. The questions I did ask, but was too distracted to pay attention to the answers, leaving them still questions
  • Allison who was a bit ill, and quiet, that I barely noticed that she wasn’t even eating much

And I realized that I had missed seeing the forest for the trees. As much as they enjoy my cooking, they also kept telling me that they would rather spend time with me, maybe play some games, or watch a movie without me falling asleep in the first ten minutes. But I didn’t listen, because dammit, they were going to be fed, the dishes had to be done and the kitchen was going to be spotless.

So, here’s my promise, kiddos (or threat, depending) – next time, we will play Sequence, and watch a movie or two and have some real conversations. And maybe some take out and pizza.

Image

What happens when your son hacks your blog, your Facebook, and your email…

 

I’m not great at keeping in touch. My friends must know this, though we rarely discuss it. I’ll catch up with close friends on occasion, and it feels perfectly normal—and wonderful—when we do. And I think it works for me because of how I form relationships. I believe in putting in great amounts of time and effort into the beginning of a relationship. Once I’ve decided to trust someone, I latch on quickly and I’m loyal for as long as that person can stand me. It’s much easier to maintain a relationship when you’ve committed to building something that can endure time, distance, and most importantly, silence.

I put this philosophy into practice very early in my life. From the moment I was born, I put all my love into my mother. In fact, I don’t know that I cared about anyone else in the world until I turned 5. I don’t really remember much, but from stories and photographs it’s perfectly clear: we were building something great. Now, I’m 1,000 miles away from her, but back then I would cling to her leg at the park, afraid to make friends with anyone else. I remember crawling on the floor behind her in department stores, pretending to be an alligator. I remember asking her, “will you marry me?”, not knowing what marriage was, but knowing that marriage meant that you get to keep someone in your life forever.

Over the years, I accepted that other people would have to enter my life. My father, my sister, my family and friends—I had to make room for them all. And so I gave up precious time with my mother to form new relationships. Eventually, I no longer feared leaving her side to meet friends. I was excited to go to school and baseball practice and the swimming pool and the movies and even Washington, D.C. for camp. But all the while, my mother and I had our foundation. I was still the only person who could make my mother laugh when she was angry or upset. We still sang along to the Beatles on long drives. Any South Indian meal that was not hers was not enough (I still feel this way).

When we moved to Florida, our relationship struggled. I had such strong friendships in Indiana that I couldn’t imagine leaving. Then, one of my best friends died, I left for college, and I had to start from scratch. Dealing with this change was difficult, and I was unhappy for a long time. During this time, my relationship with my mother functioned only because of what we had built years ago. Our conversations were strained because I associated my parents’ decisions with my unhappiness. In reality, I was unhappy for many reasons, and with time, I was able to adapt to my new life.

As I started adjusting to my new life and developing, my relationship with my mother rebounded. We started having long, meaningful conversations again, and I longed for home when I wasn’t there. We became very close again, and I told her things I couldn’t have told her only a year earlier (Amma- the night we watched Sanjay Gupta J). The best part was how quickly we were able to resume our relationship. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t been incredibly close for a period of time—what we built was still there, as strong as ever. The work we put in 18, 19, 20 years prior was paying off.

I’ve since moved again. Even as my mother, my father, my sister are a thousand miles away, we remain close. When we’re together, it’s like nothing has changed. And it works like this with all my family and friends.

But with one person, it’s different.

My mother and I do not speak every day, and sometimes the gap is much longer. But I do not worry.

Through all the time, through all the distance, through all the silence, the first bond I ever formed was with my mother. And for five years of work, we’ve earned fifty of a love that can only be shared between a mother and son.

Happy mother’s day, Amma.

PS I couldn’t remember the password to this account, so I tried to get into your Facebook…but I couldn’t remember that one either.  Long story short, I got into your email and had to reset both your Facebook and WordPress passwords.  Please contact Prilatha Pajagopal at Pontario Pistons Porporation…she should be able to assist you with this.

******

This was written as a surprise by my baby who hacked into my wordpress account. I had been bugging him to write for a while and wow! did he write!

 

I Got Published On Huffington Post!!!

I had written this one about 3 years ago, when dealing with the angst of unconquered hills (more like hillocks) like riding a bike as I was about to turn 50.

Polished it again recently and tried Huffington post. And got published! Yippee!

Here’s the link to the post in the  Huffpost blog section.

Thank you to my readers who have kept me going since I started blogging publicly in 2010.

 

Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 52 other followers

%d bloggers like this: