The Elephant Keeper 

I had been on a short trip to a Green island staying at a Purple hotel with White Christmas decorations in a city center. While there, I decided to make the most of it, and hopped on a tour bus to take in the sights of Ireland. It had been a dry few months in … Continue reading “The Elephant Keeper “

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I had been on a short trip to a Green island staying at a Purple hotel with White Christmas decorations in a city center. While there, I decided to make the most of it, and hopped on a tour bus to take in the sights of Ireland.

It has been a while since I went meandering off on my own. As I boarded the day trip for Wicklow mountains and Glendalough lakes, that wily Master of Doubt was trying to work his way into the old brain stand, and I was becoming a little unsure. Most people had come with at least 1 travel companion. I saw the knots of people comfortable in their own little groups as we waited for the bus to come and pick us up.  I wondered whether I shall be alone. Not that it mattered much since I had a book about a jolly esoteric family to keep me company on the trip.

Sitting tentatively in the van, I was reading The Garden of the Gods by Gerald Durrell on the kindle. I giggled before I could help it. I was peeking out at the passing scenery every now and then, and imagining the little household at Corfu. The author, Gerald Durrell, then a boy, lived with his ‘Family and Other Animals’ in the island of Corfu. A budding naturalist, his boyhood is a most interesting one in which no living creature escapes his admiration. His bedroom plays hosts to barn owls, field rats, bats, along with the more traditional form of pets such as cats and dogs. He also has a donkey named Sally, and I could not help laughing at the resulting antics this menagerie produced with his esoteric family.

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The Corfu Trilogy is set in the island of Corfu, and since I read each book in the series a few months apart, it was most satisfying.

I could barely believe that it was possible for somebody to live the way he described it. The Universe is not always kind to doubting dunlins, but this time it was.  Within the hour, I was to meet someone whose life was remarkably like the one I had just read about.

The tour bus dropped the folks who had opted to spend time at a Garden. Only two of us had opted for a hike instead of an amble around the Gardens to the dismay of the tour guide. The look we exchanged affirmed that we would be far happier being buffeted by the roaring winds, and gazing longingly at the rolling hills around us. I recognized a kindred nature loving spirit in her, and soon we got walking and talking.

As we loped up the trail with an enthusiastic whoop, she told me a little bit about herself, and I was so glad she did. She loved animals, she said, and lived in a home teeming with pets. I truly did not believe that Gerald Durrell’s family was possible, much as I loved reading his books. But her answer astounded me. She said they had a donkey, 2 geese, 2 cats, 2 dogs and 12 hens. Her business trip was the most interesting one I have heard to date. She worked as an Elephant Keeper in a Zoo in Holland. She was here, she said, on an week-long program to work at the Dublin zoo’s Elephant department, but would be going back to her own zoo at the end of the week.

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I told her that the children would love to meet her, and she nodded understandingly. Looking at the excitement of their mother, she very kindly sent me some pictures and videos of the animals she worked with in her work spot.  She too had come alone, and the pair of us spent the whole day together – on windy hillsides, amidst towers and remnants of castles looking like giant rooks and bishops on a chess board.

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I was so glad that my earlier doubts had not stopped me from having a wonderful day: the serendipity of finding companionship, the beauty of learning of another way of life, and above all, the opportunity of shaking oneself out of the familiar and the tried and tested.

The universe finds a way of showing us the rainbow if only we stick with the rain.

Boarding the Flight of Fancy

I boarded the flight at the end of a long week. I was going to be away for a week, and I had spent weeks trying to get things in order for the week I was gone. It felt good to finally stretch one’s legs (as much as an economy seat would allow anyway), relax one’s senses, and stretch one’s mind.

The flight was strangely beautiful. It left in the evening, and as it took off, I left behind a sparkling firework of lights. The vast, urban sprawling city and surrounding areas looked kindlier from above. The freeways glowed like veins throbbing with cars as they crammed their way home for the week-end along the packed highways. I have watched ants with interest as they scurry about their daily duties and I felt we must look the same if someone were to be observing us. Maybe those monitoring satellites do have the feeling every now and then.

Bay area at night is beautiful from an airplane, however else it feels when one is on the road.

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I fell into an uneasy slumber once we passed the populated sections and darkness fell. I looked out the window hours later, to be pleasantly surprised by the beauty that greeted me. The plane was gently reverberating with the satisfied sighs of sleep from most passengers. A few were watching the brightly glowing screens. I peered out of the window, at first unable to see anything since my eyes took some time adjusting to the sudden lack of light. Once I did though, it was marvelous.

I have always loved gazing at the moon while traveling. The feeling of us moving, and our beautiful cosmic neighbor giving us company even though we are moving so fast is surreal.

I could not see the moon just yet, but I recognized the belt of Orion. We were flying along side the big hunter as he made his way in his pursuit of the seven sisters across the skies. It is a strange feeling to watch the stars and a familiar constellation accompany us on the trip while we journey through the stars.

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The Pale Blue Dot, as Carl Sagan so beautifully christened our lovely, if sometimes crazy planet, seems wonderful from high above. It helps us forget how judgmental, critical, harsh and war-mongering a species we are. While up there, borders and countries seem like a strange concept, like a tiger marking its territory. Can the tiger determine where life can flourish, where the weeds grow, or how many gusts of wind may swish through the bamboo groves? Our borders mean much the same especially when surveyed from the stratosphere: Meaningless asks from an arbitrary marking.

Musings from the wonderful book, Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris, took me to an uneasy land of half slumber in which strange dreams accompanied unknown stars through a flight that even a 150 years ago was nothing but a flight of fancy. Kate Harris’s work is one for every traveler’s soul.

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I got up to see the moon looking slightly alarmed at still being up and about when the sun was rising. The pink, and orange skies twinkled benignly upon the clouds below, and all the world was still full of promise and expectant. The blush of joys unknown.

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The Degree of Shoshin

I wonder sometimes how the brain works. I mean, some references make us link to something else across the bridges of time and space where no ostensible link exists. Was astronomy the link? But that seems weak given that I ogle at the stars every opportunity I get. Could the 12 degree landing of Insight be the link? But the slopes that my mind linked to were at a 11 degree incline. And we were very proud that our little corner of the world could provide just the right 11 degree slope too – that is why I remember the incline so clearly.

Ignorant men raise questions that wise men answered a thousand years ago. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maybe it was something to do with the specific angle at which the Insight can land on Mars that brought back memories of a trip to the Radio astronomy center in Mutthorai in Nilgiris – who knows?  The radio astronomy telescope on the slopes of the Nilgiris was magnificent and awe-inspiring. It still is. I remember hearing that the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) had scoured plenty of slopes in India and this humble village was deemed just the right one to capture radio waves. It had the right level of incline(11 degrees), minimum light pollution at nights, and we were proud of our unassuming Nilgiri hills for providing such a marvelous slope.

By Own work – Ooty Radio Telescope, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7463023

 

I remember going to visit the center with the father one rainy afternoon during the monsoon season. We often piled onto his scooter that the kids had lovingly nick-named Street Hawk given it tore through the streets with a ear shattering noise, even if we could run beside it. (I often wonder how it must feel for someone who goes to India for the first time from a country like the US or Canada, and sees a family precariously making their hazardous way through the haphazard traffic – obviously uncomfortable, but looking joyous and confident. Even cars here seem so cranky – “departing lane, departing lane” it goes on like a parrot on caffeine. Fine – relax! Talk about sticking to the straight and narrow path – sheesh kababs.)

Anyway that is how we toured the Nilgiris during our school holidays. We would start out on a supposedly clear day, the brother standing in front, his feet making sure not to come under the brakes foot pedal, the sister on the pillion seat, and self squashed between the driver’s seat and the pillion seat, my face turning a ninety degree angle to make sure I could breathe, and off we would go on our adventures. Sometimes, our Street Hawk could not quite pull up the intense slopes of the Nilgiris such as the Katteri falls, and we would all good-naturedly pile off, let the pater go up the slope on 1st gear, trudge up there, and pile on again. What was life without these little pleasures?

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Invariably midway through our trips somewhere, the skies would attempt a volte-face: the sun would dip behind the clouds, a brisk wind would start around us, and the first raindrops would start. Sometimes, if the downpour got heavy, we would shelter at a random farm or village and nibble into the ample snacks packed for the trip, and head out again after the fierce downpour stopped. The dubious weather reports then were listened to with the amusing attitude of one indulging a child, and if it all went towards building the weather reporters’ confidence, it was time well spent was the general attitude. Ours was a forgotten corner of the world, and we loved it just the way it was. 

Off I went meandering around the countryside when I should have been sticking to the Radio astronomy tower as usual. The point is, I remember thinking as a child standing on that steep incline with the monsoon winds buffeting us from all directions, struggling to stay upright, and thinking for the first time how we must be standing at all. We are spinning on a very fast ball after all, gravity is all very well, but what would happen if Earth decided to just let us go for one instant? It was a terrifying thought, I clung a little harder to the pater’s solid hands and redoubled my wonder at how we exist at all. 

That is the beauty of space exploration isn’t it? It rekindles wonder. If retaining wonder in our day to day living is the mark of a meaningful existence to paraphrase the German philosopher, it is no wonder that we marvel childhood with its fresh perspectives, and its great capacity for wonder. The beauty of #Shoshin

“The highest goal that man can achieve is amazement.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

To All Astrophiles

“Did you know, the Voyager Insight is going to land on Mars tomorrow?” said an excited son. T’was the night before school reopened after a joyous 10 day Thanksgiving break, and the night before the much anticipated Insight landing on Mars. I looked at his shining face when it should have been a sleepy one.  The sparkle in his eyes did not smack of eyes wanting to make the journey into the Land of Nod any time soon. So, I sat down next to him and said, “Really? How do you know?”

That’s better, his posture seemed to indicate, and said, “Yes…Appa told me. It has to land at an 12 degrees angle it seems.”

“Why 12 degrees?” I asked intrigued. 

Space.com article : Mars Insight Landing

Quote from article:

“InSight hit the thin Martian atmosphere at about 12,300 mph (19,800 km/h), nailing its entry angle of exactly 12 degrees. If the lander had come in any steeper than that, it would have burned up; any shallower, and it would have skipped off the atmosphere like a flat stone across a pond.”

After chatting a little more on the impressive Mars voyage, I asked the little fellow if we should read a book on Space exploration. He nodded. Anything to keep from falling asleep.

So, we picked up the sweet little children’s book, “Also an Octopus” or “A Little Bit of Nothing” 

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Also an octopus : or, A little bit of nothing / Maggie Tokuda-Hall ; illustrated by Benji Davies

Also an octopus : or, A little bit of nothing / Maggie Tokuda-Hall ; illustrated by Benji Davies

The book is about an octopus who plays the ukulele, and wants to get on a purple spaceship. Who can help it build one though? Why a rabbit scientist of course!

 

We laughed as we read the book. As different as it was from Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, it stretched one’s imagination in a thoroughly whimsical manner that made us giggle at the very thought of the Octopus on the spaceship. If ever we need to convince ourselves of the diversity of life that we seem to be threatening, we need look no further than the impressive marine life we host on Earth. 

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Counting on Katherine – by Helaine Becker, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

All space lovers should definitely read the beautifully illustrated children’s book, Counting on Katherine. Based on the scientists featured in Hidden Figures, Counting on Katherine illustrates the love for Mathematics and its application to space travels in the most endearing fashion. A child who has the inclination towards numbers cannot help deepen their fascination with them, and hopefully, those who do not share that fascination, will develop a curiosity towards them. I have always loved the look of a blackboard with neatly written mathematical formulae and calculations: this book captures the aesthetic beauty of the blackboard beautifully.

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Counting on Katherine – by Helaine Becker, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Anyway back to Voyager Insight I said, “Do you think we can watch it land?” 

“Yes….it will be on You-tube.”, said the little fellow, positive that the image transmission from the Insight landing on another planet can make it to the nebulous internet without any trouble at all.

Here is a video link prepared by LockHeed Martin in collaboration with NASA’s JPL:

Automatically, my mind harked back to the old times when an image was work, precious work, with days in between clicking the pictures and getting them developed. When they came out, you saw the lighting could have been better the framing better, the shake a little less, and solemnly swore that you were up to no good, and waited it out till the next film roll proved it. 

I still marvel at any photographs we receive from Space. 

Human minds can adjust to improvements so easily – if only, we had the sagacity to adjust just as quickly to hardship.

Unicorn or Werewolf, I am Grateful

The day leading up to Thanksgiving has been a beautiful, beautiful day indeed. I cannot say I was calm and collected when I got up to see the earth scented with the first rains of the season. Even with the weather channels setting our expectations and all that, it was simply marvelous. I am a pluviophile and when we have gone this long without so much as a drizzle, I really cannot be blamed for a little overzealousness, can I? 

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The air quality over the past few days has been pegged down to ‘very poor air quality’. As a result of which, schools have closed early. The daughter has been rattling off statistics that the Air Quality Index indicated that it is the equivalent of inhaling 6 cigarettes a day or 8 cigarettes a day, leading to the most intriguing discussions between her and her elementary school going brother about smoking, second hand smoking, smog, and lung cancer. When I saw their faces one evening refusing to come out, I decided enough was enough and told them about how some children in highly polluted cities in China and India think the blue skies are some sort of poetic license, since they have never seen a clear blue sky. A smog-ridden world is not a beautiful one, I told them, but that doesn’t stop people from living, and finding joy; but only means we have to work towards finding a way to fix the problems.

Today, however, all of that was gone. We took deep breaths of the moisture filled air, looked afresh at the fall-colors – everything seems to be enhanced in its beauty. The earth seems cleaner, we can finally smell the pines and eucalyptus trees. I took the son out to play in the drizzle, inhale deeply and take a walk around the neighborhood.  The husband shot me indulgent looks, while the daughter gave me commiserating ones even as she patted my head, and said, “I know you love the rains Amma. Fine! I’ll come for a walk with you.” Sometimes, I really wonder who the child is.

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We spent the late afternoon in a golden daze (actually more of a silvery haze). As we headed home, the moon peeping through the scudding clouds made us all sigh once again, and I said I felt like a unicorn with all the magic in the air. The son, looked up at the skies, and said, “Don’t you mean a werewolf? It is a full moon remember?”

Werewolf or Unicorn, as long as we can enjoy the magic and feel grateful for all we are blessed with, I am happy. There is a reason Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays (the history of it aside), Gratitude is such a wonderful sentiment to celebrate. 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Time For Scrunch Parties

I wonder when we stop skipping on our way, when we stop reading children’s books: tales of magic and myth and splendor, when we start looking weird for having crunch parties in the scrunchy leaves of fall, but it is a time we must take a knuckle and give ourselves a good knock on the head, and cut it out!

“Please! Just come with me for a walk! “ I said to the children.  November is the month of Scrunch Parties, and the month I can be seen begging the children to come on walks with me, even if they look and act like Hawks and Pandas. I still remember the day I came tottering into the home, my confidence in the true tra-la-la  of the world shaken. 

I had stepped out without the children after they had both called me ‘Nuts’ for wanting to go for a walk when the time could be spent inside the house on the couch instead. I gave them a withering look, and told them that I shall ascend to higher levels with my stint in the fresh air, where nature shall nurture my spirit and enhance my being, and they were going to miss all that. I threw in a quotation or two, gave them a sprinkling of philosophy, and a hint of lavender from my coat pocket to entice them into coming. I straightened my shoulders, and delivered the pep talk that Generals could take notes from. 

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I don’t know how these Generals must have felt when they spread themselves liberally on the pep-talk, so they can leave pronto to acquire the next kingdom, only to have the troops say, “Nay, it is better if we camp here for a month. The Biriyani is particularly aromatic and spicy here!” But that is how my pep-t was received. They lolled on the couch, gamboled lazily in the warm, fuzzy throws like lambs in springtime, and continued watching whatever-it-is that amuses them so much. 

I told them they shall soon see a reformed person and made my way out, my back registering disapproval at this lack of enthusiasm for nature-walks, but my front eagerly galloping towards the joys awaiting me outside.  

A few minutes later as I stood looking up at the sunlight filter through the trees, a stiffish breeze started up. The mesmerizing sound of the the wind rustling through the trees caught my attention (There is a fascinating word for this – Psithurism). The wind rustled a special tune sending beautiful waves of ripples through the leaves. Standing there with the sunlight illuminating the waves was magical, the wind was also sending hundreds of leaves dancing their way down to the Earth. My face lit up with happiness, and I charged left and then right trying to catch one of these beautiful leaves on their way down.

My arms felt like the wings of a butterfly spread wide, my leaping from one side to another left me feeling catlike. I clasped at thin air as the leaves fluttered past me. I don’t think my performance would have landed me a spot on the International Cricket team for fielding, but no one could fault my enthusiasm. My face was happy, and it was then that I caught the eye of a gentleman out on a walk too. 

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He looked at me like I needed to have my head examined. A small twitch of his bulbous nose indicated disapproval of this entirely whimsical and childish act of catching falling leaves, his round head shook like he could not believe I was let loose on the streets and he made his way again with an exaggerated dignity. His figure exuded the unmistakable message: I was an adult in a world where we do not show happiness by ourselves, was I not? We do not skip, we certainly do not run like lumbering sea-whales going after fish, we are prim, and we must be proper, and we must never forget that we live in a world where there are many problems waiting to be solved.

I tried to shake the wet geezer off, but the scrunch had gone out of the scrunch party. I went back home, an altered soul. Seeing my less-than-exuberant spirits slink back into the house, the children wanted the low-down. I usually come back from my November walks bearing gifts of colorful leaves, or tales of butterflies and chirps of birds; not the slumping shoulder and the lack-luster shrug. I poured my heart out, and revived under the sympathetic brow swiftly giving way to gushing laughter. 

“You must’ve looked such a goofus Amma, running after leaves and scrunching leaves by yourself.” They cackled, and I smiled. 

Some inelegant demonstrations of my chasing the leaves were given to much mirth, and I felt happy at being able to spread joy in this stern world, even if it was at my expense. I mean I did not really think this little wet sop episode deserved rolling on the floor and laughing so hard, it was hard to stop.

I wonder when we stop skipping on our way, when we stop laughing out loud at Dr Seuss books, when we stop reading children’s books: tales of magic and myth and splendor, when we start looking weird for having crunch parties in the scrunchy leaves of fall, but it is a time we must take a knuckle and give ourselves a good knock on the head. 

When Seuss-isms Save Your Spirit

“Oh my gosh! You have to write about this!”, said the daughter laughing, and the son looked pleased with himself. He had uttered a Seuss-ism that just made the whole lot of us laugh out loud. I dilly-dally-ed on writing up the little anecdote and the incident has now slipped my mind. It had something to do with a packet of chips, some fellows playing on the street, some elephants and a circus. Something that reminded me of these two books by Dr Seuss:

If I Ran The Circus &

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street

 

I tell you a writer in the nourishncherish household has a full plate, and as a chronicler of sorts in the household, I tend to miss out on a lot of things, such as the tale of the water hose and the tulip bulbs, or the cartwheel aspirer whose tales of the leaping t-shirt kept us all enthralled, or the time the husband walked in to find a boy and his tiger entertaining the rest of us in the bedroom to chuckles and guffaws.

So, I hurried and wrote this down now before it too joins the nebulous places where thoughts and memories go: the duper pin lot of thunderbolt crate.

UUUUGGGGHHHH! This day sucks! GAAAAAHHHHHH!” I said exasperated. My family’s dinner, carelessly prepared, but tastefully done with the freshest of vegetables and the spiciest of spices lay in an orange goo splattered all over the kitchen. Like someone exploded a sunset on the ocean reef floor, only not as pretty.

It had been one of those days when I had dropped the daughter at Drombasollu, and picked the son at Pickabolou, then shopped for groceries at the Packed Aisles of Drabaloo, only to run an errand to the wasted lands of Grimes via the packed streets of Trafficity, before heading back to Drombasollu – all of this after a long working day on the grimiest streets of the city of the Somaridden, and back after a ride on the silver caterpillars of Mushart, not to mention 10 phone calls to co-ordinate who did what-s, where-s and when-s – with curt replies when the conversations veered to the how-s and why-s. I had run low on energy, even lower on patience and the ability to see the fun side of things was off hiding till I ventured to find it again.

The son came over, gingerly stepped around the splattered muck that I had intended to call dinner, and said, “Oh thank goodness you are not one of the engineers who work on the bridge of Bunglebung Bridge across Boober Bay – they have things falling from everywhere!”

This was from the book, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are – By Dr Seuss

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He then gave me a hug from the back, and in a minute my tensions splattered too. I laughed at the genius of it, and hugged the little fellow. “Always read Dr Seuss my dear. Always! When you are ten, don’t forget them, when you are twenty, remind yourself to read them, and then go on reading them when you are thirty, forty and with tea, it will always be …. gah I can’t rhyme this anymore now!” I said, but the smile was back on my face.

“But it was pretty good!” said the little fellow encouragingly.

Within minutes, we had laughed and cleaned up the kitchen floor and were rummaging the shelves for another slap-a-dash dinner. When the husband and daughter came back from wherever their drombasolu, pickabolou route had taken them, we had a semblance of dinner ready again. Our spirits much revived by a Seuss-ism were smiling and happy again.

I doubly appreciate Dr Seuss, because I had never read his books as a child. But I get to enjoy them now, as I read them with the children – one of the many joys of immigration. It makes me a whimsical child again, and grateful for reading them at time when it is lovely to remind ourselves of the sunny days of youth again.

Like Graham Greene said of his famous work, The Wind in the Willows, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading every now and then:

“A book of youth, and so perhaps chiefly for youth and those who still keep the spirit of youth alive in them; of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides, free of problems, clear of the clash of the sex, of life as it might fairly be supposed to be regarded by some of the wise, small things that ‘glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck’.”