Dressed Like a Mom or a Hippie?

“I am not a typical teenager, okay? Everyone always stereotypes teenagers, and we are not like that!”

I nodded (sagely, if I might add.)

“And I am not a drama queen! “, said the teenaged daughter stamping her foot dramatically, though I could already begin to see glimpses of her impish smile twitching there on the corner of her lips. 

“Of course you are not!” I said rolling my eyes, which she promptly caught. “So, when you remember what you are upset about, will you tell me?” I asked her.

Cheeky as she is, she had the good cheer to see the position, and she chuckled. 

“I don’t suppose it is fair for teenagers to be judged this way, especially when they do nothing stereotypical like buying MOM jeans!” I said pushing relentlessly to clinch the deal. 

The chuckle changed to full blown guffaws at this, and she rolled on the bed laughing.

“Appalling those jeans are! I never wear anything like that, and yet you had the cheek to go and pay more for them, and they are called MOM jeans for God’s sake. Not stereotypical at all, my dear!”

Timbered richly with the sound of her laughter, she agreed. “The jeans are pretty terrible! But I took a poll on Insta, and everyone agrees that it is a very good idea. Hippies do dress like that. With a tie-dye t-shirt and a flower headband, it’ll be lit!“

Lit, I am amused to hear, does not mean that she will be lit up in those little fairy lights. In today’s lingo, “Lit means like Awesome, you know Lit?”

“So, Lit is good?”

“Yes! Sheesh!”

We were discussing her proposed ensemble for Halloween. She wants to dress up as a hippie, and went out with her father and bought MOM jeans. In all fairness, she asked me for them, and I said, “MOM jeans?! Why not just wear my jeans with a belt?”

Ever the voice of reason, that’s me.

She rolled her eyes  (not in typical teenage fashion, since we are on the point of not stereotyping these saintly marvelous children)

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Her creative side was in full blast. All she had read in her Greek myths, watched in her television shows: shows with raucous characters & sketchy parenting; combined to give her the idea for her Halloween costume. The idea was soundly seconded by her little Gryffindor brother, and her could-have-been-Gryffindor (if only he resisted the idea) father.

What blows my mind is how Marketing departments function. They took a bunch of overstocked baggy jeans that were languishing in the lots ever since the skinny jeans came into fashion, and gave it a name called MOM jeans and these children are willingly wearing them. I must learn some of that for my own sake. I have some long skirts that apparently are “Not Lit!”, that just may be made “Lit” again. Let’s see.

Should I dress as a teenager? Accessorize with sass, punch with pizzazz and cut being droll like a troll? That’ll be like totally lit!

Happy Halloween everyone!

The Secret To Blooming Like a Flower

I gabbled on about the beautiful Kurinji flower over a distinctly sub-par dinner one night. Sometimes the rhythms of cooking are too frequent. “Do we really need to eat every few hours?!” I said drowning out the sound of “You haven’t cooked in 3 days!”

The children listened – one with ardent curiosity bursting with questions and the other cloaked in teenage blasé that belies the true interest behind the flowers. ( “Cool!” – only a little wag of the ear indicating possible interest).

“Can you believe the Kurinji blooms without alarms and clocks to set store by? Every 12 years like clockwork!”

The questions that followed were better than the answers:

  • Do all of them bloom at the exact same time?
  • What about plants that grew later, won’t they all flower at different times?

My answers are not answers that would have pleased Charles Darwin perhaps, but if he wanted to answer right, he should’ve been there, not let me field them is my stout reply to this.

Interesting aside:
The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks starts off with an essay on Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers.

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I could see why Darwin liked his flowers so much. This was long after his magnum opus, The Origin of Species, was completed. He actually spent the last decades of his life pottering about his green house, setting the children in his life to chart the course of the bees, studying orchids and their flowering patterns etc, and was therefore immensely better prepared than yours truly.

His joy was evident in his letters:

“You cannot conceive how the Orchids have delighted me .. What wonderful structures! … Happy man, he [who] has actually see rows of bees flying around Catasetum, with the pollinia sticking to their backs! .. I never was more interested in any subject in all my life than in this of Orchids.”

He went on to write the book with the fascinating title: On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects

Meanwhile, the kurinji flower was still blooming in the home: the river of questions on What Is Time flowed on:
What is Time when you are a flower?
What is Time when you are a squirrel?

The husband had a bemused and half-exasperated expression on his face, as he heard me talk about alarms, time and biological clocks. He watched me squirm and the urge to tut came to me. I knew what was going on in that optimistic mind of his. He hopes I will have the sense of a Kurinji flower someday.

I feel bad for the old boy.

The thing is, I set beautiful poetic alarms, replete with soothing ringtones to go with it, place them on his side of the bed, and then proceed to sleep like a blessed bear in the winter.

If we need to get up at 6 a.m., I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. thereby allowing me to snooze a few times, and then go back to dozing the doze of the blessed. It is marvelous to get that snooze time, and some of my best snoozes are at this time. This vague time of day between wakeful consciousness and blissful unconsciousness.

If everything in the universe follows a pattern, how do we determine what ours is, without the aid of all our poetic alarms? There is a beauty to seeing the natural things around us, for they soothe us in ways quite unknown to our hectic way of life.

I was reading Village Diary by Miss Read for the n-th time (like a flower knows when to bloom, I know when it is time for a Miss Read re-read), and I admired yet again the simple way in which she had set a truth about humanity in her beautiful language.

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Quote:

As I ironed, I amused myself by watching a starling at the edge of the garden bed. He was busy detaching the petals from an anemone…

This short scene, I thought as I pressed handkerchiefs, is typical of the richness that surrounds the country dweller and which contributes to his well-being. As he works, he sees about him other ways of life being pursued at their tempo – not only animal life, but that of crops and trees, of flowers and insects – all set within the greater cycle of the four seasons. It has a therapeutic value, this awareness of myriad forms and varied pace of other lives.

So, maybe that is the secret to blooming like a flower. Set our patterns to the natural rhythms of the world around us rather than to the dictates of productive days.

“Hmm … when would you naturally feel like doing stuff? Like cooking! Just asking!” said the teen rolling those eyes of hers. The loud guffaws that accompanied this were appreciation enough for a chef.

I think I will take after that Kurinji flower after all.

Books:

  • River of Consciousness – by Oliver Sacks
  • Village Diary – by Miss Read
  • Origin of Species – Darwin
  • On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects – Charles Darwin

Blooming Time?

A version of this post was published in the Nature Writing magazine: When The Kurinji Blooms

In a small corner tucked away from the hectic panting of the world lives a small ecosystem,  nestled in a range of hills that is fast losing its unique beauty to ‘progress’. It is the place I was lucky enough to call home when I was growing up.

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Primrose jasmines – Image by Wouter Hagens[Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
The thought of flowering lupines takes me to Iceland; lotuses to a temple tank surrounded by trees with the breeze rippling the tank waters; primrose jasmines and Kurinji flowers back to the Nilgiris.

One of the marvels that is highly unique to the Nilgiris is the flowering of the Kurinji.

These flowers only bloom once in 12 years, and when they do, they are a joy to behold. I have only seen them once, and I remember thinking that for all this drama of blooming once in a dozen years, they should be, more grandiose, more robust, a trifle less ephemeral. But that is the thinking of an ignoramus, and I sensed the idiocy of the sentiment even then.

The flowers were beautiful, and the fact that there is a plant that knows the time to bloom when the rest of the world needs alarms and clocks to rise and shine is nothing short of marvelous. We need apps, calendars, schedulers, reminders and alarms to go about our daily business of living, and yet these unassuming flowers go about their act of procreation, maturing and enthralling the world without any such aids. What is more beautiful than that?

The kurinji flowers were in bloom last month, and I lived vicariously through a few friends of mine who live in the beautiful Nilgiris and posted the pictures. Entire hillsides clothed in royal robes of purple, swaying and billowing in rainy wind splattered skies, or waving and tossing their crowns to the blue skies with the scudding clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The beauty of a functional model like a flower is a joy to behold. Imagine my joy then, when I opened the book, What Do You Care What Others Think – By Richard Feynman and the very opening of the book spoke straight to my kurinji-flower yearning heart.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Ode to a Flower – By Richard Feynman. This brain pickings article links to the beautiful animated video made by Fraser Davidson based on his ode to a flower.

 

I could not see the Kurinji flowers this time. I know many hillsides that were carpeted with these marvels have now become home to resorts and hotels. So, I wrote to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers requesting them to try and obtain a sample of this marvel: a tiny piece of magic tucked away for generations to behold. I hope they can.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
– William Blake

 

We Belong on Earth – Part 2

One sunny day, I felt a surge of happiness to find the latest book by Khaled Hosseini, Sea Prayer. I heard it was like none of his other books, but just as poignant. The moment of realization came a moment after the surge of happiness – how could I be happy to find the book that drove home the sad truth of refugees – of that child whose dead body floating in the sea inspired the book?

Child name: Alan Kurdi

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Was I really ready to have my heart wrung out as I am sure it will be when someone as competent as Khaled Hosseini wields their pen on the sad plight of refugees? I picked up the book late that night, long after the moonlight had transformed the late summer landscape into a luminous wondrous land.

I always hesitate to start a book of such deep issues, and for good reason. I was in a flight once, and delved into my book. I was about halfway in when tears started streaming down my face. A co-passenger asked me if everything was alright and I pointed to the book, feeling sheepish, but she replied that she had cried after reading that particular book too, and I felt like I had met a kindred spirit. Like P. G. Wodehouse said, “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature. “ .

The book was In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner.

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Vaddey Rattner writes of the child trapped in the horrendous events of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I said it before and I shall say it again: There never is an upside to War. The worst affected are the children, and we have no excuse to maim their psyches thus. I read the book more than 5 years ago, and yet it stays in my mind. Vaddey Ratner draws you into the human experience through the suffering so beautifully that words fail me.

The book made me realize what it must have been like for an old colleague of mine.

I remember the shock with which I realized she was a refugee from Vietnam. We were both heavily pregnant with our first-borns and often traded tummy-tales. We were hallway buddies. I wished her a Happy Birthday, proud of myself to have remembered, and she gave me a rattling wholesome laugh in response. Then, with her characteristic good sense, she told me about how someone took a look at her and assigned her an age when she got off the boat. “They said I was 5 then. Looking back, I see I was given 3 years of my life to live again. “

I did not know what ‘got off the boat’ meant at the time. I looked at her quizzically for she said, “Oh, because I was pretty sure I was 8 then, but I did not know English, and I did not know that when they pointed at me, they were estimating my age and they gave me a birthday too. With the war I was malnourished, bones sticking out, and I am short too, so I suppose I could easily be mistaken for a 5 year old when I came here. I don’t really know my birthday, so I just celebrate this day that was given to me. “

Over the course of our pregnancies, she told me tidbits here and there about how she had escaped Vietnam as a refugee and came to the United States.

The fast flowing rivers of my consciousness, combined with the changing people-scapes around me, meant that I thought about her every now and then even though I lost touch. I am fairly sure that she must be enriching the world around her somewhere. For her, this life was too much of a gift to throw away and not live and contribute to the fullest.

Who was it who said, that we affect the world around us simply by being, or some such thing? Just thinking of her gave me the courage to read Sea Prayer. I opened the book and was transported to the town of Homs in Syria.

Sea Prayer is more of a poem in the form of a short letter written from father to son. A few words is all that is necessary for him to take you into a grandmother’s hut where the child played.
“We woke in the mornings
to the stirring of olive trees in the breeze,
to the bleating if your grandmothers goat,”

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A sample of the artwork by Dan Williams

A few strokes of the brush is all takes for the artist, Dan Williams to set the tone for ‘The skies spitting bombs. Starvation. Burials.”

It is a very short book, and not like Khaled Hosseini’s other works, but it is a book that reminds you to think of the human condition. The book finishes on this note.

”Sea Prayer was inspired by the story of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach safety in Europe in 2015.

“In the year after Alan’s death, 4,176 others died or went missing attempting that same journey.”

Where do we belong? To Earth surely.

Read also: Do We Belong On Earth?

Recess The Basis of Culture

This article was published in The Hindu (Open Page) dated 14th October 2018.

There is a beautiful park that is frequented by many in our suburban area. The geese, gulls, squirrels, grebes, mallards and pelicans are a constant source of joy, and I feel much refreshed when I spend an evening there. One day over the week-end, off I went to the park for a brisk workout. It was particularly crowded as people were enjoying the last few weeks of sunshine before the fall and winter cold set in.  

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I found myself in several places having to slow down and take it easy, thus enabling me to listen to what people were saying from time to time. One time I found myself listening to a couple of women talk about the malady of modern times – the over-scheduled child’s life. The women were discussing the schedules of their 5th grade children.

As soon as he comes back from school, he has to go for Taek-wondo for 2 hours, then, violin class, and then his Math or English classes. I also want him to play basket-ball, so, the week-ends, he has Bala Vihar (the equivalent of Sunday school), swimming and basket ball. He asks me, – Amma, when can I do my homework? Poor fellow! I told him to skip his recess times, and just finish his homework during recess so that he need not be stressed about finishing it.

I turned around to see if they were joking, but they weren’t. They were genuinely worried about the children’s activities and wanted to solve the problem of finding homework time.

My heart went out to both the worried mothers and the harried children. 

I thought of how much I loved recess as child, and how much the children love recess now. I love listening to the recess games, and recess tales. I like to watch the elementary school children at play while dropping off the son to school in the mornings. It is a heartening sight to see the children find their friends, their faces breaking out into slow, wide smiles, and a spring in their step as they bound off to play.  

A few girls play the jump-rope. They stand on either side of the jump rope and swish the rope up and down while the person in the middle tries to jump as the rope comes under their feet. Every time one child trips, she smiles and good-humoredly lets go, while her friends cheer her on with their own smiles.

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In just a few weeks, I see the children have gotten much better at the game too.

The days I am able to see the children play the jump-rope I feel as though a lovely light permeated my soul, and whispered to me that all would be well. These children will be the new leaders in a few years after all. If they know how to encourage each other and work together to lift everyone up, we will be fine, won’t we? 

Most days when I ask about school, I get recess-tales. The best lessons in life are those imparted at recess: The strength of companionship, the solidarity of friendship, the simple choice of being present for one another, and so much more.

Read here about a German philosopher who said Leisure is the basis of culture – from Brain Pickings

The daughter, I remember, used to describe in marvelous detail about how they transformed the playground into an underwater coral reef, and played a game called Sharks & Minnows. (That child should have been born a mermaid!) The son shows me his callused hands from attempting the monkey bars and the various shenanigans possible with this simple play structure.

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I pondered on the solution the mother gave her child to skip recess and finish homework instead. Often we find ourselves in spots like this, where we are trying to solve a problem without changing any of the variables. But it was an important lesson to me, maybe sometimes we need to see what variable can be changed – in this case, what activity can be let go. Or schedule in a Magical Do-Nothing Day Or Magical Do-Nothing hours.

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After all, like Socrates said, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”