The Peanut Mystery

Why Dr P. V . Ramachandra was nicknamed after a peanut (Kadalai in Tamil) has many interpretations in school folklore. One interpretation said he distributed chikkis -( sweetened peanut bars), whenever you visited him. But that was not true. I am not saying I made a pest of myself at people’s houses for the snacks they offered. But I am saying that that particular strain of the origin of the nickname is not true. There was always warm hospitality coupled with tasty snacks such as kodubele, vadais, sweets of different varieties at their place, but chikkis were not a staple stand-by as was commonly believed. These things were important to get right.

Another version said the name was because he had been seen buying Lonavla chikkis on the station platform even as the train huffed and puffed getting ready to leave.

Even the mystery surrounding the origin of the nickname is a mild, gentle one, like the man it was bestowed on. Kaddu or Kadalai was the Deputy Headmaster of the Lawrence School. Another one of those stalwart people who joined the school as bachelors with my father, and retired three decades later bestowing on all those who knew him care, and affection.

I thought of Kaddu a few weeks ago as I read this sparkling piece of wisdom in the Anne of Green Gables series by L M Montgomery:

Rilla of Ingleside: L M Montgomery

“Sometimes I wish something dramatic would happen once in a while.”, said Rilla

“Don’t wish it. Dramatic things always have a bitterness for someone.” said Miss Oliver

That in essence was my impression of him. Life sometimes flowed swiftly in the small community we lived in. Drama swirled in pockets of the river where the currents were especially swift. In a school housing teenaged children day in and day out, it was inevitable. I am always in admiration of those who can be serene in a whirlpool. PVR had the ability that I strive for: to be an amused spectator when possible, and when his intervention was demanded, to be as undramatic, and useful, as possible.

His energies were diverted into quiet intellectual pursuits such as philately, and extensive academic interests such as reading, writing and research. This curiosity enabled him to pursue a string of degrees in a variety of subjects. He held advanced degrees in Mathematics, Economics, History and a Doctorate in Sanskrit on the subject of Shringara Rasa. For all of these achievements, he was a remarkably humble and quiet man.

I heard the sad news of his passing a few days ago. My father sounded sadder than usual as he recalled the strength of his friendship with Dr PVR.  A mild, gentle man whose passing has once again reminded the Lawrencian community about how lucky we were to have had the influence and wisdom of personalities such as him.

See also : In Memory of Raga, Dear Athai, Monkey Pedaling , Mr Bharathan

 

Duck, Duckling, Dolphin

I recently read a book titled Dolphin Parenting by Dr Kimi Shang. It was an antidote to the Tiger Parenting by Amy Chua book. Dolphins are intelligent, social and playful creatures, and therefore, we must model our behaviors after them is the gist of the book.

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Art work by Daughter

Nature provides us with amazing parenting models every now and then.  Spring time is especially wonderful as this is the time for new life, a transformation of sorts. The butterflies are out and about, snail-lings venture forth, squirrels come out of their hibernation, eggs hatch and, in general all of life is abuzz with beauty and purpose. One day on a walk near our local lake park, I noticed Mrs Duck go to her nest, and Mr Duck gave her a nod as if to say, “Go on dear, I’ll ensure no one disturbs you.” Mr Duck then went on to aggressively protective their little nesting area by quacking loudly and doing sentry duty.

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Just in time for Earth Day, the ducklings have hatched, and they look beautiful. There is something in the innocent, puzzled looks on their little fuzzy bodies that tugs your heart. Of course, it is amazing to see Mr & Mrs Duck take care of them. I can watch them for hours. How they slowly introduce their young to the big, bad world; how they watch their little ones play for hours; and how they only intervene when important,  is a lesson in parenting for us.

They take them gingerly out into the shallow waters first, then as their little bodies grow stronger, take them for longer fishing trips. They teach them how to cross the road – the ducklings are protectively looked after by Papa & Mama Ducks. The parents in front and the rear, the line is a marvel. The noisy bunch then head on towards wherever they are going. I don’t know how disciplined the ducklings are when they grow up, but when babies, it is an adorable sight to see them toeing the line obediently and happily. 

It is that time of year to read Robert McCloskey’s adorable book, Make Way For Ducklings.

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The books starts off with Mr & Mrs Duck looking for a place to live and raise their babies. They fly great distances before they arrive at a little island that looks just right.

There, the ducklings hatch and the conscientious parents are busy in providing for the young, teaching them to survive in a tough world, and learn to be independent. 

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Once they are strong enough to swim longer distances, it is time to move to a bigger island, that involves a few perilous road crossings. Who should come to their rescue but the local policemen?

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A heart-warming tale that I can read any time for a quick dose of sunshine. Illustrated in a simple brown ink, it is a wonderful book for Parent Ducks and Ducklings alike.

I remember being amused and amazed when I first came to the United States on seeing Duck-Xing signs. Coming from India, where traffic flows on, and people cross on and share the road with dogs, cows and goats (nobody particularly stopping or giving precedence to another); it was wonderful to see that the traffic did not only stop for pedestrians crossings, but for ducks as well.

The Half-Baked Philosophers

T’was a philosophical sort of day. I had not the mood to do much other than go on long walks, and when at home lie down and read. The children indulged me, and were secretly happy that nothing else was being asked of them. 

It was in this philosophical vein that I dragged the husband along for a walk that evening. The glorious Spring evening had me mooing about the tree lined streets, sticking my nose in flowers, inhaling deeply the scents of lavender bushes and roses. My nose was covered in pollen and I started an impressive bout of sneezing.

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“Really! When folks say, “Stop to smell the roses. 🥀”, you don’t have to do exactly that you know?” said the husband. His manner seemed to indicate that it was only a matter of time before a couple of butterflies started sitting on my nose to do their bit in the whole divinity of spring exercise.

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“But, it makes me so happy! “ I said.

He deftly diverted the conv. to safer grounds. “If happiness is a feeling or an emotion. Where do you think it emanates?”

Was it the endorphins that made that happen? We went on our walk discussing half-baked theories on serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and some-other-in, that would have made WhatsApp forwarders proud. By the time, we had circled back on whether there is enough neuroscience based research on the subject of brains, happiness, and its link to depression, we were clearly out of our depths.

Minds far superior to ours have pondered the essence of an emotion. Does it originate in the brain, then how does one feel one’s stomach clench when anxious, or one’s heart fill out when happy? Sometimes, I think we are nothing beyond the carriers for the emotion rivers that decide to course our bodies.  As we age, we are supposed to grow more sanguine, but I feel that only happens for the positive emotions, not the negative ones. We do not whoop with joy, but we still feel intense grief. It is all highly muddling.

“Maybe happiness as an emotion can only be meaningful when one knows the opposite. You need to be sad at times to feel joy, feel angry to know the beauty of peace.” said the husband looking as Zen-like as it is possible for his spirit to be.

Later, I reached out for the one place where I know all of Life’s great questions are answered,  a children’s book. Titled Cry Heart, But Never Break, by Glenn Ringtved, Illustrated by Charlotte Pardi, Translated by Robert Moulthrop.

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In it, Death comes knocking at the door to claim the old grandmother dying upstairs and spends the night with her grandchildren. The children ask Death why their beloved grandmother must die. Death tells the children a story. A story of 4 children: 2 sunny sisters, Joy & Delight, who fall in love with 2 gloomy brothers Grief & Sorrow. He explains how each complements the other. Without grief and sorrow, one does not find true joy and learn to enjoy delight in life. Without Death, one does not enjoy Life, he says.

Written by the Author when his mother was dying of cancer, the book is beautifully narrated, and the illustrations are emotive. It is a book about Emotions after all.

And there in a nutshell was the gist of our half baked philosopher’s walk-and-talk. As good children’s books do, the book in one fell swoop, captured the nub of a 3 mile saunter in 10 pages, far more effectively. I tell you, Children’s book authors and illustrators are the truest custodians of the Human Spirit. 

The Appalam Pounder’s Daughter

This article has been published in Open Page of  The Hindu.

An Aunt was visiting, and her nieces had all gathered around. Lunch was in progress, and though some of the dishes had not turned out quite as expected, they were well appreciated by the folks at the table. Crisp, creamy white lentil snacks called appalams or papads, were passed around with aplomb, and I got approving nods for frying them. 

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The husband had been jesting around the aunt that he had last eaten fried appalams about a year ago.  The aunt gave me a distinctly doleful look.  How could the niece she loved so much have denied her loving son-in-law appalam for this long?

We sat around a distinctly large meal with the fried appalams being passed around, and I looked on amused at the satisfied smiles on the faces of all around. “Any meal becomes special with fried appalams!” my father used to say whenever he spotted them gracing the table.  He truly became a child beaming happily while breaking them off with a joy that is quite disproportionate to the humble appalams.

I said as much to my aunt, the pater’s sister,  and she chuckled happily. “Yes, appalams were your father’s favorite. Three days every month was dedicated to making appalams“, said she, and I sat back to enjoy the nostalgic look that lit her eyes.

We sat enthralled as she narrated the story of how her mother, Visalam Paati, would roast the dhals and set them out to dry. My grandmother’s life has always fascinated me, A mother to 9 children, that generation was responsible for the burgeoning population we have on Earth today thanks to rising health and lack of birth control. 

Feeding and raising such a large family must have been a herculean task, but Visalam paati seemed to have been a competent taskmaster, planner, forecaster, chef and mother. As the appalam making tale unfolded, it was evident that those three days were filled with important buzz. Everyone had work to do, and everyone’s task was equally important:

  • The younger ones had to shoo away the birds while the lentils dried in the sun. #AppalamMinders
  • The older boys would have to pummel and cudgel the dried lentils with an iron cudgel. “No grinders, and mixies or any machines in those days, remember?”, my aunt said. #AppalamPounders
  • The older girls would then have to take the powdered lentils, mix them to cookie dough consistency and roll them out into neat little circles before setting them out to dry again. #AppalamRollers
  • The younger ones took up their sentry watch to shoo away the birds while the appalams dried in the sun again. #AppalamMinders

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“One time, my mother was alarmed to see the appalam dough below spotted with blood and looked up to see that while pummeling, your father had accidentally hit himself on the forehead with the pummel a few times and his forehead had started to bleed. Poor fellow. That month, we had a little less appalam stock because we had to throw out that batch, but your father got his full share because he liked appalam so much, and of course he played the sympathy factor the whole month!” she said and giggled.

Three days a month set aside for appalam making, so that the children may enjoy fried snacks every once in a while seemed to be a lot of planning and processing, Obviously, fried appalams held a special appeal in the hearts of the children. Each one felt they had contributed to the process, and the satisfying crunch must have had a special meaning.

Going to the supermarket and picking up a packet of papads or appalams has become so blasé a task, that I rarely stopped to think about how it was prior to mechanization and automation. 

“Automation has changed so many things hasn’t it?” said one voice, and we all piped in.  The topic of automation took us for a bumpy ride down the river of time. While automation has helped feed and clothe the billions of us, it has not really helped the global climate very much. Mass production and capitalism have also blurred the lines between needs and wants. 

It was a lot to process. Sometimes, in our rush to simplify things, we do rather complicate them don’t we? I loved the mental image of appalam making in a small village house in South India. When was the last time, the whole family pitched in on one activity together that contributed towards something meaningful? Maybe when we painted the rooms a couple of years ago.

Probably that is why the Little House in the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder remains a much loved American classic. It talks of a time when every body helped each other in order to live. 

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I read the book recently, and found myself ardently wishing I could sit with the deer in the prairie even if certain wolf-heavy nights were scary. A simple tale of building a log cabin in the middle of the priarie is a marvelous read, and I am grateful for the fact that I read it as an adult. 

“I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder

Fox 🦊  & Pan 🐐 ⛰

“You know? Most of my morality comes from Percy Jackson and Harry Potter?” said the teenage daughter one day. 

“Gee! Thanks for that speech on wonderful parenting my dear, No clasping mother and father to heart and tears of joys on helping you navigate a messy world and all that?!”

She had the grace to laugh. 

She had been holed up in her room all morning, and I had hollered to her to come and help me with the chores. She stumped downstairs, unable as a teenager, to let on that she was probably enjoying the interlude of putting away the dishes with music in the background. 

As the dishes clattered, the kitchen was enveloped yet again in a mythological whirl. The daughter was always fond of Rick Riordan’s Greek and Roman mythological tales. The son, who has now started to read the series with gusto is thrilled at being included in the club of discussing these important works of literature with his sister. The warring factions of the Gods Vs the Titans has been analyzed from teenage, pre-teenage and elementary child angles. Myths have an alluring charm and when you find the similarity between Cerberus and Fluffy the three-headed dogs in Percy Jackson and Harry Potter series, it is always worth doing a little dance jig, and discussing with the teenaged sister. 

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The husband and I have been made to read the books too, and I must say they make for entertaining reading. I still prefer the Harry Potter series, but I see the lure of Rick Riordan’s work. He has perfected the rhythm of adventure with the right mix of modernity set against Greek gods in our world. 

“Which God would you be if you had an option?” the daughter asked, and the answers flowed forth. When it came to me, I paused for a moment and said, “Probably a nature god. Who was she? Hera?”

“Nah…You are thinking of Persephone. She is the Goddess of spring – you’ll like her too”, looking like a doctor arriving at a tricky diagnosis, “but I think Pan is more suited to you,” said she.

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“Fine then. I will be Pan. Pan is the strongest God if he is the Nature God right?” I said knowing fully well that my answer would be met with an uproar: 

Zeus is the most powerful. 

The top three are Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. 

“Well you know what happened to Pan?”, and then the pair stopped mid-sentence and exchanged meaningful glances. 

“We must not spoil the suspense for you, Amma, but it is very sad what happened to Pan.” said she.

“What happened?”

“NO! Don’t – let Amma read it!” said the most recent reader of the books.

“Just tell me!”, I said, deftly catching a cup from cracking as I caught it from the dishwasher.

A dramatic sigh followed, and the sad prognosis was delivered.  “Pan is fading Amma. He is no longer a force that he was on Gaia now. It is up to us now to save Earth!”

I looked at their faces and felt a surge of pride, alongside a wave of gratitude to writers like Rick Riordan who so beautifully captured the essence of conservation in a manner that so many young children can relate to. Where would we be without the gifts of imagination and creativity?

I read another short story, Fox 8 , by George Saunders, who captured my attention, in a similar manner. Written from the viewpoint of a fox, Fox 8, it outlines the sad outcome of a mall being developed in Fox View Commons ( an area that was home to many animals, forests and trees). Fox 8 learns how to “speek yuman”, at the window of children being read to by their parents at bedtime. Fox 8 loves the stories, their morals and their imagination. Even though, the stories get things wrong about animals all the time, he is fascinated. Fox 8 is a huge fan of yumans and their ingenuity even when the mall development essentially drives their pack to hunger and death. The story ends on a sad note, with Fox 8 wondering how yumans can be cruel and unfeeling towards fellow beings with life, when their stories promise to teach differently.

I have said this once and I say it again – if only we could learn to live like the stories we weave for our children – with wonder, empathy, bravery and curiosity, wouldn’t our lives be more whole-hearted and content? Maybe our greed could be in check and Pan would not have to fade away so much.