The Lentil Chips Shine Down

The excitement in the bunch of children gathered was palpable. They were united by a sense of wonder and pleasant anticipation. Were they really going to be able to touch the telescope, and see something remarkable? A bar stool had been borrowed from a kindly neighbor and the little telescope was perched on it. An earthworm like line was formed with the children waiting to get a turn at the telescope. It was as wiggly and restless as an earthworm, and just as fascinating to watch from a safe distance.

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Mars in the distance shone with the iridescence of a star. Mars has been exceptionally bright in the evening skies, and the Mars viewing party was happening on the week it was closest to the Earth.

Mars has fascinated mankind for centuries. It started with hoaxes of finding extra terrestrial life on Mars: maybe those rigged lines on the planet were canals? said a 19th century astronomer, and from that hypothesis, sprang a vibrant story of alien life. In our enthusiasm to find extra terrestrial neighbors, the populace went along. That kind of hope is refreshing even if misguided. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_on_Mars

Tonight the telescope we had with us was only as big as a professional camera, and I hoped it would not disappoint the children gathered.

While the telescope was being deftly handled by the husband, I diverted the attention of the children skyward. Their questions about progress were distracting the misguided astronomer who was pointing the lens towards the stile on our neighbor’s roof, and wondering how he could see things fluttering there (I pointed to the sycamore tree nearby that had shed a few of its leaves on the stile, and crushed the poor fish’s soul about finding extra terrestrial life on Mars. Andy Weir might have imagined potato cultivation on Mars, but even by his standards, a sycamore tree was a leap, I told him kindly. He guffawed loudly at this and fiddled on.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_(Weir_novel)

In the meanwhile, I pointed out the familiar constellations to the hopeful looking children. The budding astronomers were skeptical. 

‘How do you know it is Big Dipper?’ 

‘It could be anything or nothing’, said another, and quickly the pendulum swung from hope to disillusionment. I managed a quick save by not letting it swing too far, and told them about the excellent app, Skyview, using which they could confirm the stars for themselves. The older teenagers who had smartphones for themselves were suddenly beset upon to share the marvels of the night sky. 

 

Cecilia Payne would have been proud indeed of the motley group of astronomers gathered in our driveway. It is marvelous to see how the work of early astronomers & physicists set the base for us to be able to map the skies and predict the movements of stars and planets.

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The Glass Universe

Book recommendation: The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

“Oh look!”, said the Big-Dipper-doubter, pointing the phone wildly at the sky, “the moon, the moon!”. 

An experienced hand said he had seen the moon before and there was nothing remarkable about it.

“But it is so beautiful!” said another sounding reproachful at the dismissal of the beautiful moon, and I agreed. The moon has exerted her pull over mankind almost since the beginning of time. Even if we do see it everyday, the moon has a poetic beauty all of its own. That night it was looking achingly beautiful. 

Maybe it was the effect of the scintillating talk I had the privilege of attending earlier that week.

I have never had the opportunity to listen live to a TED Talk. But that week, I had listened to a very TED-esque talk by Jon Carmichael the cosmic photographer. He shared the beautiful story of how he photographed the full lunar eclipse a year ago with the help of a Southwest crew. 

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Please listen to the talk on the site if you can.

I was telling the children about the talk, when the husband let out an involuntary yelp and said this time he was fairly sure it was Mars. 

One child gazed into the telescope and said, “It looks like a Papad in the sky.”, and we all laughed. (Papad  – is a sort of flat, round lentil chip!)

The cosmos has a way of uniting us in the darkest of times. Even during the most inane days, there is always a cosmic show that is ready to enthrall us and fill our souls with enchantment. It is why I was so happy to be standing among the children gazing up at the stars, and soaking in the wonders of the cosmic show above me that day. Even if the children did see a lentil chip in the sky, I hope for some of them at least the magic seed was sown. A seed nurtured by the hopeful innocence of youth, tempered by the wisdom of years, with the potential to mature into a star of their own.

Radiance of a Thousand Suns

The children and I were reading the Butter Battle Book, by Dr Seuss again: A marvelous book that never fails to enlighten : the bigociously atrocious weapons we are capable of creating, how littlyfully small-minded we are when we come to self righteousness,  and the idiotic ends to our means. It makes me want to take our brains apart to see where bravado and ego reside and short circuit them, to see if it results in a fuzzy ice-cream show in the pupils. 

butter_battle

 

Written in 1984 this book is a simple parody of the nuclear arms race, and is chillingly relevant today.

The book is about Yooks and Zooks: The Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down. This leads to escalating differences and a long curvy wall is built between the two lands.

butter_battle_2

Soon, both sides start fighting by using weapons of increasing grandeur and magnitude starting from the Tough Tufted Prickly Snickle Berry Snitch to the Eight Nozzled Elephant Toted Boom Blitz. The book finishes with the Yooks and Zooks sitting on either side of a wall threatening to drop the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, signifying the nuclear threat.

Around the same time that Dr Seuss came out with this brilliant book for children, another one of my favorite writers delivered  a series of Gifford Lectures. Titled ‘The Varieties of Scientific Experience : A Personal View of the Search for God’ , Carl Sagan goes on to explain in one lecture how we fail to comprehend the true magnitude of the nuclear problem ahead of us. 

The_Varieties_of_Scientific_Experience
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28513011

Quote:

The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki – everybody’s read about them, we know something about what they did-killed some 1/4 million people … The planet Earth today has 55000 nuclear weapons, almost all of which are more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and some of which are, each of them, a thousand times more powerful.* Some twenty to twenty-two thousand of these weapons are called strategic weapons, and they are poised for as rapid delivery as possible, essentially halfway across the world to someone else’s homeland.

*By 2006, the world nuclear arsenals had been reduced to about 20,000 weapons-still roughly ten times what would be necessary to destroy our global civilization. the principal reductions since 1985 were due to the 1993 Start II Treaty between the United States and Soviet Union.

“Twenty thousand strategic weapons in the world is a very large number. For example: lets ask how many cities there are on the planet Earth. If you define a city as having more than 100,000 people in it, there are 2,300 cities on the Earth. So the US and  Soviet Union could, if they wished, destroy every city on the Earth and have eighteen thousand strategic weapons left over to do something else with.

These lectures were delivered in 1985, the numbers have definitely been revised from thereon. A number of countries have also harnessed the power of nuclear weapons, even though there have been treaties and agreements to restrict its use. 

Robert Oppenheimer, credited as being the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, when he witnessed the test of the nuclear bomb over the desert in New Mexico was supposedly reminded of a text in the Bhagawad Gita.

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One…
I am become Death,
The shatterer of worlds.

With the rise of autocracy the world over, what would it take for us to save ourselves this time around? For all our brilliance in developing the bomb, we have yet to develop sound defenses against it.

 

When Love is Theratti Paal Sweet

This article was published in The India Currents Magazine for Krishna Jayanthi. Link here: When Love is Theratti Paal Sweet

“Do you remember?”, started an aunt, “how he stuck his hand in the theratti paal * container when the lights went out during Krishna Jayanthi?”

*Theratti paal refers to a heady Indian sweet made of condensed milk, ghee and cardamom

*Krishna Jayanthi – Lord Krishna’s birthday

The story was being related to peals of laughter. The hero of the tale beamed and laughed heartily at his boyhood escapades – it had all happened about 70 years ago after all. We knew the story, but it did nothing to diminish the retelling of it. I already knew my father was the naughtiest of the 9 children borne by Visalam Paati and Kalyanam Thaatha. (Paati – Grandma; Thaatha – Grandpa)

I sat watching the glow on the faces around the table, like an eternal torch lit by the essence of shared times and space of childhood. There was genuine affection, laughter and love there, and it enveloped all those around in its warm embrace. We had been to visit our aunts in Atlanta. The septuagenarian father has two septua sisters who live there, and I went with him to enjoy the siblings get together. I watched indulgently as their laugh lines etched over the years crinkled with every anecdote. 

His sisters and nieces had lovingly charted out the menus for a whole week. A week that included all of the father’s favorite dishes. Dishes remembered from childhood, dishes acquired in far off lands, and dishes that made my paternal grandmother, Visalam paati, come alive in the retelling of the process. The delectable snacks and the satisfying compliments such as, “You have your mother’s gift with the art of cooking.” flowed graciously.  The brood of Visalam and Kalyanam were known for their sweet tongues, and every meal had a different dessert to go with it. 

The sweet of this meal was theratti paal. It’s commercial cousins are called Milk Peda, but it is an unpoetic name and as a sweet is a poor substitute for the Theratti Paal. Theratti paal, when made on the stove with fresh milk takes hours to come to the right consistency. I can imagine how Hinduism came to have the myth of churning the milk ocean. There are so many milk based sweets in the land, and it is quite possible that that particular myth was the gift of the dreamy subconscious thoughts of some person making theratti paal hours at a time. One can go into a sort of meditative trance as the milk gathers its cream, and then folds and bubbles again, and then again and again, till the color changes, the consistency changes, and the sweet smell of condensed milk wafts through the air. In slow measures, one adds the sugar, butter or ghee and the cardamom to send those in the vicinity to realms of ecstatic waiting. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 10.32.21 AM

Today the same marvel can be obtained from a can of condensed milk, a stick of unsalted butter, and a microwave in under 10 minutes, and I felt the tongue dance and explode in joy as the microwave theratti paal melted on the tongue. The ghee, condensed milk, and cardamom all tickled the nostrils. 

I remember listening to stories about her children from my grandmother, Visalam Paati. (Visalam means vast, and the name suited her. She was generous with her time, attention and her servings, and when one wanted to play with the jiggling oodles of arm fat, there was plenty of that too and she never once got irritated when we teased her about her bulk. ) Feeding and taking care of a brood like that makes me shudder, but Visalam paati seemed to have done it with love, competence and skill. 

The tale being narrated was the one on Krishna Jayanthi. Krishna, Lord Vishnu’s avatar, is said to have loved theratti paal. 

krishna_therattipaal.jpeg

Apparently, the evening pooja was ready to start. Bowls of snacks: (mysore pak, payasam, thattai, seedai, murukku, theratti paal), butter and ghee were all placed in front of the Gods, and just before the offering to the God was complete, the electricity went out plunging the little village house in South India in the 1940’s, into a darkness lit just by the flame of the small wicker lamp near Lord Krishna’s deity. Visalam Paati having the kind of prescience that comes from raising nine children immediately placed her hand covering the theratti paal container. True enough, within seconds, a small hand struck at the theratti paal container – Visalam paati caught the hand, and waited for the lights to come on again. Just as she thought, the malefactor was none but the naughtiest of her brood, my father. 

“I knew you will reach for the theratti paal. Little rascal! “ she said. 

We all laughed heartily while spooning in some more excellent microwave theratti paal ourselves. 

The smells and scents of ghee, condensed milk and cardamom cut across decades and the siblings sat there giggling like school children again. 

Isn’t it marvelous how regaling our pleasant memories often transforms the bleak horizons of time to become as brilliant as the Milky Way studded with the shining moments of our memories?

Next week is Krishna Jayanthi, and I will go about the joyous task of drawing tiny Krishna feet from the doorstep to the kitchen. I shall make the microwave theratti paal, and think of the children in the 1940’s who shared the adventure of theratti paal, and waited the whole afternoon for the exotic taste of it in the evening. I shall regale the children in the twenty-first century with the story again, and smile indulgently at the fact that his sisters remember their naughty brother every time they eat theratti paal.

Love takes various shapes. Ours is sweet. Theratti paal sweet.

Life is a Circus

This article was published in The Hindu Open Page dated 19th August 2018, with an excellent cartoon by cartoonist Surendra  . I love the illustration of the mother (me) sitting like a circus elephant on a stool and looking fondly at the clown in the tent!

When life is a circus, can a circus tent, be far behind?

That’s what I tell myself everyday as I walk into the home. It helps me cope. You see as soon as I walk into our modest home, apart from a heavily used sofa set (on which I seldom find place to sit when I want to, because it is overrun with books, stationary, toys, papers and coats: relax! It is summer – Chill!), and a dining table (which has not an inch of real estate to spare, what with the pater claiming it as his office on which his laptop and assorted junk sits and the mater using it for her sewing machine and her sewing needs), one also finds a red circus tent with a clown inside.

clown

It was meant to be a fortress – a haven of peace and quiet in a noisy world.

It all started with a sales pitch one evening. The son was trying to sell me a fort. The little fellow was going the salesman on me. I suppose it is frustrating if a customer does not bite. The evening sun shone on his eager face and his voice chirruped louder than the birds. Folks stopped by to see what the furore was about, and wondered why I was being unreasonable about buying a fort. 

Before one runs off with the idea that I buy forts and palaces in my spare time, I must assure you that the fort was going to be engineered with paper, and tape borrowed from, that’s right, from me. I poked holes at the plan dubiously, and tried telling him the obvious answer, “I don’t need a fort!”

“You said you did not need that sheet set, but you bought it, and now you like it. Like that, once you buy the fort, you will like it.” he said.

Fair point, but I got to tell you, a sheet set and a fort are not quite the same things.

“But I am quite happy in our house, why would I need a fort?” I asked. 

“It is your own place to sit, and relax and do stuff Amma. “ Painted that way, the fort did seem appealing. I mean I do crave for a little quiet every now and then. A fort that is my own in the middle of all the everyday drama sounded marvelous.

Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content;
The quiet mind is richer than a crown. – Robert Greene

“But where will you build the fort?”

“Inside the house of course!” said the architect and I quailed. The house is barely big enough for our needs, and when folks come, I land up frantically shoving things into closets and hope no one opens them to have stuff tumble out on them. I certainly don’t have the kind of spare real estate required for building forts in them. 

But the little beaver would not back down. “It will upgrade our house. Remember you gave that man money for putting tiles in the bathroom? He upgraded the bathroom right? (Subject for another blog post) Like that, I will build you a fort and upgrade the house, and you pay me money.”  

This discussion went on for a bit, and things reached an impasse. I hoped the passage of time would make him forget and so on, but I should have known better. When fate socks me, it socks me with a big red flapping hand.

A couple of days later, the son and I were enjoying some down time together while the rest of the family went to Ikea for some shopping.

Imagine my chagrin when they trooped home with a surprise for the beaver. “Your very own tent – ta da da da! “ proclaimed his protective sister, and the fellow hugged her as hard as he could every chance he got for the rest of the day. He invited us into his tent, and it was soon forgotten that the tent was supposed to be made for me.  

circus_tent

So, now there he sits at every opportunity he gets. Last night, I found a pillow I’d been looking for in the tent: he took it in there to lie down and read a book. 

Interior designers may shudder at the aesthetics of it, but the clown inside is immensely happy.

Solitude by Lewis Carroll

I’d give all wealth that years have piled,
The slow result of Life’s decay,
To be once more a little child
For one bright summer-day.

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See also:

The Land of Crumpled Cardboards

 

Zephyr Tales

A few days before our trip to Iceland, I was reading a beautiful book on Lewis Carroll, One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll – A celebration of wordplay and a girl called Alice, and how the world was gifted with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book had exceptional illustrations and I found myself looking longingly at the pages multiple times over. Written and illustrated by Kathleen Krull & Julia Sarda, the book lets us peek into the journey of Lewis Caroll, and his particular penchant for finding words when the English language fell short.

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What was fabulous and joyous at the same time? Why ‘Frabjous’ of course.

I thought of this book while running down a mountain in Iceland. I was in a magical place and everything around me felt surreal. I was also reveling in the spurts of fresh air, reminding me every now and then that I was not in a dream. So, I suppose I could not really be Alice scuttling after a rabbit, though….I was running behind a friend whose physical fitness is legend in our little circle, and before I could say “Ho!”, he had loped easily ahead of me like a rabbit in a waistcoat. I was lost in the beauty and strangeness of the world around me, and kept on.

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Just as a sample of the brilliant art work in the book, please check it out.

Uphill, it was torture. I was wearing multiple layers of clothing, and huffing and puffing like puffins in a marathon. I plucked at my scarf, petulantly tugged at my jacket, and tied it around my stomach, and kept running. The marvelous scenery around me was ever so slightly befuddled by the mambo drums in the heart.

Downhill however, it was marvelous. I could feel the cool breeze on my face. Knowing that I had a gushing waterfall on the right, and a huge glacier to the left helped. The weather had become cooler, and the clouds that ordinarily I would have found beautiful were now stunningly beautiful.

 

 

Isn’t there a beautiful word that describes the heady feeling of feeling the cool air against your face as you run downhill? Zephyr was the closest word I could think of.  Could horses have something that captures this particular joy? Maybe in the timber of their neighs.

horse

Exultant, I kept running. There is nothing in the world that can take that feeling from you, I thought, and smoothly tripped on a pebble, and did a routine that could be incorporated in to the next vaudeville act.

In a place where the winds are ubiquitous, there must be many words for describing the wind. I looked up words for wind in Icelandic and I was not disappointed to see 56 distinct words. (Counting Icelandic Words for Wind (JóB))

The search for this particular word led me to other beautiful ones though. Psithurism, for instance. Describing the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, I often stop and listen for this marvel during walks. Some others here:

A Nemophilist’s Orchestra

In the cathedral of the trees,
The bells of the wind
Like perfect music sounds
Accompany our montivagant joys.

Maybe we do need to follow Lewis Carroll’s wisdom and come up with a new word for the wind beneath your wings or the wind on your face.

P.S:
Nemophilist – a haunter of woods, one who loves the forest for its beauty and solitude
Psithurism – describing the sound of the wind rustling through the trees.
Montivagant – wandering over hills and mountains

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