Should Okras Be Peeled?

The father waddled up to me in the library and spoke in his whispers. “Oh! Look what I have found? I am going to become a force, and talk to Aunty by myself.” 

It was a Tamil book: Learn Hindi Through Tamil. I looked amused. Hindi has always been the pain point in the household. I remember being a single digit age, lolling on the bed in our childhood home, a few weeks before our trip to New Delhi, and the mother was exhorting us to learn Hindi.

I was the only one who was technically qualified to say anything in Hindi because I was the only one who learnt the subject, but I use the term ‘learnt’ loosely. The teachers taught, I struggled.  I always struggle with languages that force you to determine before hand whether a biscuit is masculine or feminine. Fine! Male biscuit! I say, and then it asks me, what about a dog? How does it matter whether the dog is a she-dog or he-dog?  ( although I suppose it matters to the dog, I see that now. Hmm.) Okay, She – The dog is female. Then what about a dog-biscuit? Is that asexual. You see how confusing it all is? 

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We made it to Delhi after a thrilling ride on the train that took us several days and various experiments with Telugu, Marathi, Bihari, Urdu, Rajasthani and Hindi. One day, we went shopping in Delhi. We were told by our kind advisors that the thing to do in Delhi markets was to issue a prompt, “Baap re baap Bhaiya. Itna?!  (Oh my goodness me! This much?!). Like a ‘Hello’, you first belt out the Baap-Re-Baap. After that you are on sound ground, and can proceed to ask for a price less than half the asking price. 

When we baap-re-baap-ed at this, our hosts told us that it is standard practice. Traders in that market priced goods at more than double for they knew it would come down to less than half, so it is a fair price game after all. I had no working knowledge of Economics then (or now), but this sounded wonkilicious.

So, we baap-re-baap-ed our way around the city.

In the crowded market, I heard the Baap-Re-Baap in the Pater’s voice emanate to much commotion. A soft voice was never his identifying feature. If he were an instrument in the band, he would be a trumpet, not the flute or the bagpipe.

The pater was bargaining hard. “Nahin, nahin. Pachees too much hai. Myn pachaas-heee givoonga, errrmm, day-oonga.” (“No no. 25 rupees is too much. I will give you only 50 rupees.” )

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I went over to investigate the fracas, since more and more people were joining in to get a good seat on the show. The pater was driving the hard bargain. 

I tried explaining in Tamil so folks watching the show would not understand: “Do you want to give Rs.15? He says the thing is Rs 25, and you are saying you will settle for Rs.50!”

The merchant was laughing to split, and several more were joining in by the minute. Finally, he said in perfect Tamil. “Saami – irupadhu kudu.” (Sir, just give Rs 20.)

After that, the association of market stall traders were most helpful – they pulled us into their stores and treated us to tea and more bargains. Who after all bargains to give more? Here was a soul of gold, they said to themselves, and went on to rip us off with perfect amiability.

I can’t say the decades in between taught very much more of the language.  One could get by quite well in South India without Hindi. 

Then, a few decades later, Aunty came to our household. She is a stellar help. She speaks Hindi and when excited switches to Urdu.

So, that day in the library, he was obviously thrilled that he found the book that promised to teach him Hindi through Tamil. That night, I heard the father proudly showing the ‘Learn Hindi through Tamil’ book to the mother, and telling her looking rather pleased with himself. “Look! The milk is here. Doodh yagaan hai! 

“Oh Look!” The father is a confirmed oh-look-er. “There is even a page for vegetables. Did you know aloo means potato? ”

The mother, always up to the challenge, told him that it was admirable, and said coolly. “Tomorrow, ask Aunty to cut the peerkangai (ridge gourd) into small squares, and keep the scrapped tholi (hide)”.

The father turned to the vegetable page, exclaiming loudly that it was a marvelous book, and asks like this are child’s play. Bacchaasplay. After a few minutes, he yipped loudly. “There is no translation for peerkangai in the book. I cannot ask her. Should I ask her to peel the bhindi instead? Vendakkai means Bhindi.” (Okra is vendakkai)

“Life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.” – ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

The Land of Crumpled Cardboards

I love to see the children play their games of make-believe. One night the son went on and on about which island I would save and why. I was doing three different things in the physical realm as he spoke, and mentally fifteen. So, by the time the question was posed to me, I was flummoxed.

“Umm the biggest island.”, I said.

“Ugh! You didn’t listen did you? That has the ferocious dragon, and not just that, it won’t even listen to you! Do you really want a dragon that doesn’t listen?” he asked. Distracted as I was, I was glad that the irony of the moment was not lost on me, and I chuckled.

Sometimes, I need to get something at night, and howl and yip after stepping on gallant heroes, tired cars, planes and figurines parked on the ‘arena’ in neat rows so they can sleep.

An old cardboard box has occupied prime real estate in my home landing for months. Several attempts to throw the thing out fizzled out when I heard the touching passion with which the son argued for it to be kept. It isn’t an ordinary one: It has hosted grand prix races, super hero battles and has even been used as an air strip for firefighting airplanes. 

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Inside, you will notice several faded crayon marks, the battle scars on a war-field.  The faded crayon lines are the tracks where the races take place. The green colored lines are the lanes within which the firefighter plane has to land, exhausted after fighting fires raging over the crumpled forests of paper nearby.

I was reminded of the poem, The Land of Counterpane, by Robert Louis Stevenson. A poem so endearing to me given the situation with the crumpled cardboard box.

The Land of Counterpane – By Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850 – 1894

When I was sick and lay a-bed,   
I had two pillows at my head,   
And all my toys beside me lay   
To keep me happy all the day.   

And sometimes for an hour or so     
I watched my leaden soldiers go,   
With different uniforms and drills,   
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;   

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets   
All up and down among the sheets;  
Or brought my trees and houses out,   
And planted cities all about.   

I was the giant great and still   
That sits upon the pillow-hill,   
And sees before him, dale and plain, 
The pleasant land of counterpane. 

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Illustration from Book of Poems – R L Stevenson

 

One evening, all the adults and teenagers in the house were busy trying to figure out how to amuse themselves. Netflix was straining its algorithms, and saying, If you liked that, how about this? You-tube stars were creaking and moaning leading folks down rabbit holes of if-you-like how the soap bubbles popped in this purple bucket, then you will surely also like how the soap bubbles pop in this pink mug.

The elementary school going son, however, was playing vigorously. The Piston Cup was in progress, and he was charging round and round the stadium trying to see whether Lightning McQueen would win yet again. After an hour or two of this game, he became a firefighter, and flew off, his mouth-engine purring brrrr—prrr—vrooom—broom. 

 

Ask any adult about how they played as children, and you can be sure of being entertained.

“Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while.”
― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of Green Gables 

I wonder when we lost this admirable skill. What would it take for us to regain the ability to amuse ourselves, and delve into the wonderful worlds of our imagination? 

I can understand now what Robert Frost meant when he said something to the effect of, the older one gets, the younger the teachers. 

When I was young my teachers were the old.

Now when I am old my teachers are the young.
Robert Frost

The Lake of Lousy Metaphors

This post was published in the Nature Writing online magazine dated 11th August

The past few months in the nourish-n-cherish household have been a whirling vortex of activity. I enjoyed most of it, but one night I felt exhausted. A sense of being spread too thin washed over me. I tried chuckling at Bilbo Baggins’ famous quote in The Lord of the Rings,  ‘like butter scraped over too much bread’, but what came out was a whimper. 

I walked over to the window, and gazed outside. The view of a spring night with its flowering plants and trees bursting with young leaves is beautiful. The faint moonlight breaking through the clouds above, makes for a serene scene, and made me reach longingly for Thoreau at Walden Pond, though it was well past midnight.

 

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Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond, and lived there for 2 years 2 months and 2 days. What emerged from this minimalist living of Thoreau’s was the great writings, that to this day offers us wisdom. (In case you run away with this notion of my acquiring wisdom, I  assure you, that I am in no such danger. I am still firmly rooted in the hustle and bustle of the human village.). The book I read was a graphic book meant to introduce Walden Pond to those who draw like me (stick or easy sketches – the actual sketches were of course better than any I produce). The words and captions belonged to Thoreau, and I enjoyed the drawings – minimalist sketches to match a minimalist lifestyle. 

In the book, Thoreau refers to the calming influence of observing nature, and how if you stay still in the woods, you will notice things that are otherwise not revealed. I let the book flop on my tired torso, and threw my mind back to the day the husband & I managed to get a day to ourselves in the wilderness. We went on a strenuous hike up to Upper Yosemite Falls. It was a beautiful day to hike. Several cascades trickled across our paths, and we jumped joyously across them. The water trickles are the highlight of that hike, and we thoroughly enjoyed splashing ourselves with the fresh water from the snow melt. It was steep going, and we huffed and puffed our way upwards. 

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The trailhead helpfully said, that one must not under-estimate the hike, and that it would take 5-6 hours for average hikers. The husband, in his typical fashion, said it would only take 4 hours. I haha-ed somewhat helplessly at this optimism that has been my bait and mate, and said 6 hours it is. It took us 5 and 1/2. So there.

I was keeping my eyes out for some wildlife, and I was disappointed to find that apart from some squirrels, there really wasn’t any other wildlife of note. Of course, animals have learnt to keep away from wild humans. I remember reading somewhere that the only large animals to survive the Anthropocene stampede are those that are domesticated.  All others, we have managed to slowly wipe out. 

On the hike, it was a perfect day, the skies were a brilliant blue, the weather neither hot nor cold, anywhere you pointed the phone, you got a pretty enough picture ( I paid for this by spending an hour deleting 98% of these photos). The steps and switchbacks were exacting a toll on the calf muscles that I paid for the next day. Then we turned a bend, and there in front of us was the spectacular Yosemite falls crashing and thundering its way down to the Merced river. Loud crashes probably meant large shelves of ice chipping and crashing into the depths below. The mists created rainbows. It was marvelous. One could stand there for hours watching the waterfall. 

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It was mighty lucky for us to enjoy Yosemite like that. For just a few days later, a storm engulfed the region, and Yosemite valley was evacuated, several rivers ran swollen and we heard of tragic mishaps and washed away roads. I thought also about how on our recent trip to the mountains, we had narrowly missed a snow storm.  There is something eerie about knowing how close one was to mishap. I was yanked back to the present by the goose-bumps on my skin, and I held the Walden at Thoreau in my hands as if looking at it for the first time. Maybe that is what the wise mean when they say ‘Enjoy the present’, and ‘Savor the moment’ and so on. I opened Thoreau slowly, mentally leaving the human village behind, and entered a sanctuary of peace and calm. I  retreated into the book for several blissful minutes, like a deer in the meadow at a rare moment.  

Thoreau had written about Walden Pond itself: 

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful feature. It is Earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depths of his own nature. “ 

I dipped my feet into the lake of sleep, thought of what a lousy metaphor that was, and drifted off.

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The Epic of Whalayana

The mother has been reading The Ramayana. She is especially fond of the Sundarakandam. For a few months, any good is attributed to the Sundarakandam readings. Anything bad is soothed away with the assurance that her Sundarakandam chantings will make it better. It takes her several weeks to make it through a complete reading. The Ramayana is a long epic, and lilts rhythmically. Reading this epic soothes her, and every now and then with touching belief, she has a go at it.

I like the Ramayana too for its main storyline, and its myriad side stories. I do think Sita could have been a pluckier heroine, but then I remember that these tales were passed down from one generation to the next, each one, quite probably, embellishing the epics a little to make sure their ideal version of the woman is subtly inserted in there. (Another post for another day)

It is interesting to think of how our epics and ballads have helped shape human history. Artifacts and natural phenomena shaped our myths, and particularly gifted story-tellers were always a treasured people. We truly believed that story-telling was the single distinguishing feature of our species. After all, imagination is a task much higher on the cognitive scale than living & feeling. 

‘Did you know? We used to have a Professor who could chant every verse and explain it so beautifully? From memory! In those days, our professors used to remember Shakespeare, entire Sanskrit texts, and eloquently recite from memory. ‘ said the father, and waxed as eloquently about the good old days; his fervor growing as he spoke of the stellar nature of his professors, about how they learnt and memorized Shakespeare and the Sanskrit texts from their forefathers. 

I smiled at the pride in his voice when he thought of his long-dead professors. For millennia we thought we were the only ones capable of passing on this kind of generational wisdom and knowledge. But that is not the case. Take the enormously intelligent whales and dolphins for instance. Carl Sagan, the physicist, writes about these intelligent creatures often. In his essay on dolphin sounds, he writes of Elvar the Dolphin who knows up to 50 English sounds and can use them in context. 

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Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan:

Some whale sounds are called songs, but we are still ignorant of their true nature and meaning. They range over a broad band of frequencies, down to well below the lowest sound the human ear can detect. A typical whale song lasts for perhaps 15 minutes; the longest about an hour. Often it is repeated, identically beat for beat, measure for measure, note for note. 

Very often, the members of the group will sing the same song together. By some mutual consensus, some collaborative song-writing, the piece changes month by month, slowly and predictably. These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I would love to hear and understand the generational wisdom that these large benevolent creatures have for living in the oceans. The ever changing oceans must be a rich source of material. Do they have heroes vs villains, good vs evil, or things much more complex and intriguing than simple story lines like that? 

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Quote:

They have no manipulative organs, they make no engineering constructs, but they are social creatures. They hunt, swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators. There may be a great deal to talk about.

If human beings have a fault, it is assuming our anthropomorphic abilities are the pinnacle of what is possible. I must remember that until recently, we did not know whale songs existed. 

The sea is as near as we come to another world. – Ann Stevenson

Coming up next: The Inner Life of Animals

The World of Pure Imagination

The daughter pranced into the home one evening a few months ago, her eyes agog with excitement. She had auditioned and been cast as Willy Wonka, the eccentric chocolate factory owner in Willy Wonka Jr (the musical based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). They say Art is Transformative, and it is true. Every time I see the children pull off something spectacular, my heart soars. 

Come with me and you’ll be 

In a world of pure imagination

We’ll begin with a spin 

Traveling the world of my creation

What you’ll see will defy explanation

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As she sang her songs from Willy Wonka around the house, there was a pleasant hum in my brain too. I remember reading the little book with her when she was in elementary school. The years in between have smudged into a blur in which I remember doing a lot of things, cherishing a few memories, and before I knew it, my little girl towered over me in height and ability. 

In a world of pure imagination: how would that world be? It must be a world in which all things vile are wished away, and only pleasant striving has a place. A canvas on which the best is to be painted and awaits the strokes of our creation. Maybe that is how we must view life. Every aspect of ours a stroke on our canvas – the true nature of the painting ever changing to be revealed to us as we go along, giving us a subtle choice here and there on whether to put in that jarring, wrong stroke or a mellow, right one.

There are many marvelous things that I can attribute to imagination (and immigration). One that ranks highest is the fact that I get to read American Children’s literature as an adult. As a child, in the lovely hills of South India, I loved curling up with Enid Blyton’s books, and often escaped into fairy lands on wishing chairs and ran into magical forests. It was easy imagining an adventure, while swinging on tree trunks that had fallen in the last storm. We had plenty of time, and had no one but ourselves to rely on for entertainment. State television made its entry a few years later, but it was agreed fact that our own flavor of entertainment was far superior to what we saw on Television. I sometimes played alone, but not once did I feel lonely. There were always imaginary friends who’d drop in for a cup of tea and we’d bake some scrunchy scones and whip up some tea cake, though I had never seen the inside of an oven. 

The Indian comic books, Amar Chitra Katha, Chandamama added flavor and beans to the curry pot of imagination. It was a wonderful time in the head. The pressures of wanting to make something of oneself had not yet begun to exert itself, the only lures were those of nature as it enclosed us. The trees were friends and frequently doubled up as props in our adventures. Many a scraped knee was soothed away with scratches from brambles. 

I entered my teenage years, and my imagination left some of its whimsy behind. The teen years and the early twenties were dedicated to much serious reading, and I spent a good portion of my time striving and wondering what to make of myself.

“That’s the worst of growing up, and I’m beginning to realize it. The things you wanted so much when you were a child don’t seem half so wonderful to you when you get them.”

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Then, I realized that all those years that I had spent wondering what to make of myself had actually made me. Just like that, I could embrace all that happened to me. It was liberating, and then the more whimsical side of my imagination swooped in once more. I took tentative steps into Wonderland when I became a mother in the United States, and indulged the child in me with my growing children. 

 

Dr Seuss graced our tongues and teased the brain (What if I had duck feet? Did the elephant hatch the egg finally, will Zooks and Yooks ever become friends?), we sang poems by Robert Louis Stevenson set to the tunes of the old hymns in our school hymn book (To be written), we giggled with Bernstein Bears, hoo-hoo-haa-haa-ed with Curious George, and marveled at the friendship between Frog & Toad. The children and I read Charlotte’s Web when I was in my thirties, but I enjoyed it even more than I would have as a child.  

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For a long time, I had meant to read Anne of Green Gables, but for some reason, did not. The daughter had not shown inclination towards this series, and there was no one to tell me how I absolutely must read it. Then, one day I read a quote from Anne of Windy Poplars, and I was intrigued. I have always loved that style of uplifting writing weaving the tendrils of imagination with subtle humor: the gentle breeze of the soothing powers of nature to nurture our soul wafting through every page. It is why I like Miss Read’s writing so much.

I identified keenly with how much Anne prized the gift of imagination. Somehow, we lose that streak of imagining as we grow older, much like we forget to skip while walking.  I now have that pleasurable thrill of reading all the remaining books by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It is a sustaining thought.  

Margarita Engle’s poem:

No giant or dragon

Is bigger or stronger

Than the human imagination

P.S: If you have not already listened to J K Rowling’s commencement speech, it is definitely worth listening to: The Importance of Failure and Imagination