Strings That Tug At Your Heart

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who was the most active, mischievous, and funny little boy in all the world. He loved to play, have fun, and laugh all the time.

The little boy’s mom was crazy about music. She hoped her kids, a little girl, and the boy, would grow to love music just as she did, growing up with music as she herself had. “Vividha Bharathi” in the mornings for Hindi and Tamil songs from movies, Ceylon Radio while doing homework, and haunting Carnatic instrumental at night that her parents/grandparents liked to play right before bedtime. She imbibed most of the classical songs she knows not from lessons, but through listening without even knowing she was listening. Music was, is, the constant in her life through the good times, and the bad, especially the bad. Music gave voice to her emotions when she couldn’t.

Therefore, she had this (annoying to the kids) habit of always playing music – Indian film, Indian classical, western popular, jazz, … – in the car, at home, and everywhere.

The boy, who didn’t look like he was paying any attention to the different kinds of music, would surprise her every once in a while by singing a Tamil movie song, pitch perfect. He was not yet 5. The girl, who was learning to play the piano, composed a little endearing piece that she named “Contrary Motions” on the piano when she was 7 years old. Mom was thrilled to bits.

When the boy was 5, mom decided he was ready to start music lessons and chose violin.  And thus started 5 years of fighting before every class. The boy would come home from school, having finished what little homework he had at school, drop the backpack, have a snack and run out to play with his neighborhood friends until it was dark. Mom dragged him to his violin lessons once a week, kicking and screaming, away from his playmates. But once he got there, he was okay. His teacher could tell he was good, but didn’t really enjoy the lessons especially in the warmer months when he longed to be outside, and the winter months when he loved to play in the snow.

His first violin recital was plucking just 3 notes, (G-D-G) with a little foot stomping after the 3rd note. He looked adorable in his white shirt, hair all combed back, and a pint sized violin – the smallest there was. His little heart was stressed before the performance, but ace it he did, especially with the foot stomping after the 3rd note, bringing the house down. Afterwards, he came running to mom, and fell asleep on her shoulder immediately, not even touching the cookies his teacher had made.

His violin lessons continued until he was ten, when he entered middle school and he could choose an instrument of his choice, offered through the school band. He chose the trumpet, mostly as an act of rebellion, but excelled at it too.  He was first chair in the high school band, and was a member of the city’s youth symphony orchestra. Mom was just happy he was still playing music.

Dad especially loved it when, some nights, he sat at the top of the stairs, after lights out, and played soulful music on his trumpet.

Over the years, even though the music lessons stopped, mom and son continued to bond over music– the Beatles, the theme music from the West Wing, Godfather, to name a few. They once sang to an entire album of The Beatles on a late night drive home from Indy to Muncie.

Fast forward 13 years. The boy is now working, after his undergrad, and living away from home. One day, he calls mom and dad and says he has a surprise for them. Mom holds her breath. The surprise was this: he was starting music lessons again. And the instrument was…not violin, as mom had guessed but close. He chose mandolin.

He loves it. And facetimes mom and dad so they can hear him practice. The first piece he’s learning is the Wedding Tarantella. Mom requests he also learn “Speak softly” from The Godfather – both their favorite. And some Beatles songs. Michelle. He looks up sheet music online and tries them out while on the phone, and promises he would call for more practice sessions on facetime.

This mom is thrilled and is looking forward to, as the boy puts it, “wow mom we can now bond over the Beatles in a different way”.

 

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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.

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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!

 

Curd And Clovely: 50 Shades Of Brown

The emotions that ran through my mind when my kids shared this question they found on an Indian matrimonial site ranged from uncontrollable laughter to disgust to outrage to resignation.  

  1. It is the 21st century. Indians have come a long way from exchanging horoscopes through a marriage broker and are now using the latest technology  to perpetuate their unholy obsession with skin color. Way to go, desi brothers and sisters!
  2. Seriously, what is the obsession with foods starting with the letter C? 😉
  3. Curd as a skin color sounds disgusting – at least to me.  I am thinking of pasty white, curdled…But note it’s at the top of the spectrum in order of light to dark.
  4. So does cardamom, which I believe is green.
  5. What the hell is cereal as a skin color? Where does Fruit Loops figure in this?
  6. How would Krishna (as in the guy who gave us the Bhagvat Gita) rate his skin color? His bluish black is not even in this spice spectrum.
  7. Is there anyone who doesn’t recognize that this is the same old color scale presented as appealing food items? That pathetic footnote doesn’t fool anyone!
  8. Will this obsession ever end?
  9. Take that, Fair and Lovely! I look forward to new ad campaigns with innovative ways of saying “You want to get married/noticed/get a job? Use our product. Get white.”

Signed,

Daughter of a woman who was marginalized by family all her married life for her “clove” complexion.

April 17, 2015

My parents in 1963

My parents in 1963

photo (10)

A couple I’ve known all my life celebrated 52 years of being married on this day. Fifty two eventful years with never a dull moment. Their marriage, like most, hasn’t been a storybook one. It has had its moments of glory and moments of utter despair. It resulted in five daughters—in a land where even a king who has five daughters is prophesied to end up on the streets with a bowl in his hand, they have survived. Gloriously. All five daughters married, with 2 children a piece, totaling ten grandchildren. I am talking about my parents, Jayaraman and Nithyakalyani.

This is my little tribute to their life together. I will follow the order in the phrase “mata, pita” and start with my mother.

She was born to Alamelu (Perambur patti to us) and Venkateswaran (Perambur thatha), with 5 siblings. Due to family circumstances, she had to drop out of school without completing high school to take care of her brothers and sister. She met my dad through her brother, my uncle, Mani mama.

I use the word meeting  loosely here, as it was 1963 in traditional Chennai, where a boy and girl talking in public was cause for a minor scandal. Mani mama and my dad used to work at Binny Mills (or was it B&C back then?) in Chennai. My parents got married at the young age of 23. Theirs was quite the unconventional marriage for those days as mom is the same age as my dad. But, the story I have heard goes like this: my dad said he would marry only my mom, or not marry at all. She married into a huge family of 8 sisters-in-law and became “manni” for not just her “naathanars” (sisters-in-law), but to everyone in the family who came later—including the “maappillais” and the grandchildren.

My mom is an amazing cook, very artistic (she makes beautiful kolams) and has a thing for numbers. She used to tell us stories most days while she fed us.

I love to hear stories about my thatha and how he pampered his daughter. He gave her very unusual wedding saris—a Kanjivaram silk in pistachio green with a dark green border for the wedding, and a gold tissue Banarasi for the reception. I remember the gold tissue sari from my younger days. It was the most gorgeous sari I had ever seen. Unfortunately, it simply became threadbare over time and we lost it. My thatha used to be an accountant for a cardamom estate owner and was able to afford nice things for my mom. From these and other little things she has told me about him, I know she was very much loved and cherished by her father. And that makes me very happy, because my mom’s married life has been no walk in the park.

She used to play the violin and put it away after getting married.

The 3 things that my mom taught me and my sisters, that still guide me are:

  1. Charity, even, or especially, in poverty—I remember one Vijayadasami/Saraswati puja when I must have been 12 or 13. I came home after some school activity. Mom had new clothes set out, and told me we were giving it to some poor kids (we were, by no means well off then—we got 2 new sets of clothes every year, usually from the textile factory where my dad worked, Anglo French Textiles. They were usually rolls of some fabric, in two colors/designs if we were lucky so that all four of us wouldn’t be wearing the same outfit. We also got used clothes from friends and relatives!) I accepted what she said without a question. That’s when she told me that she was just testing me, and the clothes were actually for us. I often think about this and wonder if I have passed this on to my kids.
  2. Run far away from people who do bad things (“dushtarai kandal dhoora vilagu” in Thamizh)—though I don’t always remember and practice this at the right moment, this has been an invaluable lesson and has saved me from plenty of heartbreak and pain, not to mention wasted energy and time fighting people and things when it’s not worth it.
  3. A corollary to #2: Don’t hit back at people who have wronged you, be it your sisters, your enemies, your friends, whoever—people usually get what they deserve. This one is hard, but the older and wiser(!) I get, I understand that the universe works in very just and fair ways, usually. For the rest, there is my old friend, Karma!

Of late, my amma has become frail and weak.  I wish I could bring her here to Florida with me and give her some peace and tranquility, but she is too tired to travel anymore. She talks about living in an ashram. I am not old enough to bless her, but I wish her peace for the rest of her life, with all my heart. Peace that has been a rarity in her difficult life.

Now about my dad. He is quite a character. Known as “meesai” mama by his nieces and nephews thanks to the military-style mustache he sported.

Like my mother, he too, didn’t finish college, and I suspect regrets it to this day. But, my dad never stopped learning. He has not let a lack of college education stop him from leading a successful life, giving all five of his daughters a decent education, and marrying them off.

He is a constant learner, full of curiosity, and doesn’t mince his words. This last trait has not won him any popularity contests, but I know people respect him for it.

He has great work ethics, is a self-starter and knows how to get work done from people. When I read about people like Jack Welch and Steve Jobs, I honestly think under the right circumstances, provided the opportunities, my dad could have been a fantastic entrepreneur. At 75, he keeps himself as much updated on the technology of today’s fast-paced world as he can, drives himself and mom around in the horrible Bengaluru traffic, and pretty much keeps himself busy with a job he doesn’t need, if only for my mom’s sanity. He left India between 1977 and 1985 to work in Kenya and Nigeria to be able to provide a better financial life for his family. (That’s where he learned to speak Swahili, and still retains some of the vocabulary, especially the swear words!)

The things that my dad taught us girls directly or implicitly, in no particular order:

Obsessive punctuality—I sometimes wish I hadn’t acquired this. While it is painful to be fashionably late to social functions, the pain is magnified by the fact that I am married to someone who is perpetually running late.

Curiosity—I like to think I inherited my curiosity about the world around me from my dad, and thank him for it.

Play—my dad definitely is one who qualifies for a “young at heart” award. He has always been boisterous, fun-loving and loud. His “kaaka” (crow) in the kaka-nari-vadai (crow and the fox) story is probably the only one to sing “chaudwi kaa chand” when the cunning fox tricks him into singing. He cheated on all games with us kids. I suspect he still does, when he plays with his grandchildren. He is also the source of the latest kollywood gossip for me—our telephone conversations include an update on the latest movies, politics and news such as “nalaikku Sridevikku valaikaappudi”.

He is also the proud author of a family lullaby, a classic that’s been passed on to his daughters, all of whom have sung it to our kids:

The song goes like this:

“Thoongu paapa thoongu

Thoongina odane ezhundru

Ezhundha odane saapdu

Saapta odane thoongu”

Translation:

Sleep baby sleep

Wake up after you sleep

Eat after you wake up

Sleep after you eat

Genius, no?

I do wish he would be more patient with himself, mom and everyone around him and generally sit back, relax and enjoy his retirement years. He has earned it.

My parents are polar opposites in everything—personality, temparement and outlook. They bicker, they drive each other mad, and I don’t know how they have survived fifty years together, but I am positive they wouldn’t know what to do without each other.

Happy 52nd anniversary, Amma and Appa!