Dear Lovely Kala Chitthi

I was in a tither, and petered out after the last meeting. 

“Why does it have to be this way? All supposedly smart people with Ivy League fancy degrees and all, and yet half of them don’t know how to utter a statement without ruffling feathers in the room!” I said.

The husband gave me an all-in-day’s-work look and I looked weary.

I could not help thinking of resumes, college degrees, achievements, patents, and all the grand things we give importance to in our society.  And I crumpled and said, “What can’t they be like Kala Chitthi?” (Chitthi means Aunt in Tamil – either mother’s younger sister or father’s younger brother’s wife).

My sister had called that morning with the news that Kala Chitthi had passed away. I said I did not believe her. And I did not. She was not even sixty. Most vacations in our childhood had that glow of warmth and love around it thanks to her.

We live strange lives of dichotomy. I had no time to process the news or make sense of my denial for my morning was filled with meetings. 

Kala Chitthi was the youngest in the large Kalyanam family. Of the brood of 9 children that Visalam Paati and Kalyanam Thaatha bore, Kala Chitthi was the 9th child’s wife. She entered a large family as the youngest member – a daunting task for anyone. Yet, she chose to put her best foot forward and was accepted and loved by 3, and at times 4, generations of people in the large brood. She was ever respectful, yet got her way. She neither ruffled feathers, nor shied away.

I remember one hot summer vacation when I was a teenager. We were visiting our dear uncle, aunt and grandmother in the village. The pater insisted on me wearing a half-saree. When pressed for a reason, he said something about Culture. Like my grandmother used to say with a wink: He left the village in his twenties, and he just remembers how his sisters dressed as children, that is all.

It was true. The father seemed to be stuck in a village scene of the 1940’s.

I know some people really like half-sarees. I suppose they looked nice enough on Tamil movie heroines, who knew how to sway their hips just so, while walking and dancing gracefully like the palm trees swaying in the breeze. Self? I detested them. I was not at all used to them in day-to-day life, and they made me feel like an ice cream in the sun. Would the slippery top slip off, would the long flowy skirt stay?

I liked to walk fast. The half sarees impeded my long manly stride with hands tied behind my back. No gentle sways of h. here. I suppose my gait was best suited to a sergeant major’s uniform, but I was willing to settle in for a salwar kameez with a dupatta. 

So, there I was arguing with the pater. Logically, I asked him, “What part of this dress is less decent than the half-saree? “. Seeing as there was no good answer to this, the pater was starting to huff and play the But-I-know-village-life card. 

Kala Chitthi was watching the unfolding drama as she went about her morning chores. Somehow she connected with everyone in the family – young and old.  She knew how much I hated the half-saree, and also how it was going to be difficult for the pater to slide down the palm tree he was climbing up with every sentence. 

She came along in that swift manner of hers, and hugged me about the midriff and said, “If you wear a half-saree, it will be so much easier to pinch you around here right? You should try it sometime!” And then smiling she said to her much older brother-in-law,  “Anna…you remember a village of long ago. These days, all girls wear a nightie or salwar kameez and stand outside. This looks beautiful!” She whisked us both on our way smiling all the way through. She had a morning full of duties to attend to and this matter was resolved with the attention it deserved. No more no less.

She loved all her nephews and nieces, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, parents-in-law. She made them all her sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents. She loved and was loved by all who knew her, with a generosity of spirit that was hard to comprehend. How could one soul have so much capacity to love? 

“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” ― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

I had my next meeting to get to, but Kala Chitthi reminded me that life is not as prickly as we make it out to be. Human beings just need to be heard and understood is all. We have things to do, and one must be happy going about it.

Chitthi’s LinkedIn profile would not boast of any patents, for they do not give patents for unifying souls, who lavish their love and generosity upon everyone. But they should. It would make the world a better place.

Love, Acceptance & Gumption

Rarely do the skies reflect our inner turmoils so accurately. The past few days have been a strange time in that respect. The wildfires in California have been giving us days of poor air & light quality.

The first day dawned with the daughter waking us up looking excited. “Oh look how beautiful the light is outside. Everything is so pretty!” I peered outside and indeed it was. The world was bathed in a mellow yellow light, radiating a divine light. “It looks like a day when you feel you must count your blessings!” I said and rolled out of bed looking for the colors of the sunrise.

It turned out be a day to be doing exactly that – counting your blessings. A day to be celebrating a truly marvelous life, and thankful for the opportunity of having his presence in our lives. 

When I checked my phone, I saw that our dear Maama (Mother’s brother) – the younger one, had passed away. My mother confirmed that he passed away while on a video call with his daughter in the USA. Till the end, he was not in pain, and in these times of Covid troubles, he passed away peacefully at home. In death he had been blessed. Though if you had asked him, he would have said he had been blessed in birth as well.

For the past few months, he had been re-living his early years with his siblings at times. His conversations flitted to the village of his youth often, and he spoke of his life as a little boy, and he asked after his little siblings. In moments of clarity, he gave his caregivers careful instructions on how to reach the village where his dear siblings were: “Turn right from the road, and go straight for 6 miles, and you will see a small temple on the side of the road. “

His caregivers, like everyone who had the privilege of loving and being loved by him, indulged him. He truly was a man of many gifts – loving pragmatism was just one of them. 

Dear maama’s life was full of verve, energy, fun, love, and was tragic at the same time.

Yet, he never dwelled on the tragic. He was always a man of action. His nimble mind moved quickly with any tragic event to acceptance, and then looked for the actionable. He never considered any other course that a lesser human being might have resorted to. He was going to be helpful however he could, and he would do whatever was in his power to do. That was his responsibility. 

Talking to some of the lives he had touched after the dear man passed away, I found myself crying at times, laughing at some loving and funny thing that was so characteristic of him at others. The skies went from a count-your-blessings light to a gloomy ash-spewing state as the fires continued to spread through acres of land. 

Gloomy skies spewing ash

I have often wondered how the young children moved past self-pity. After all, the universe had played a low trick on them. He must have been a 11 or 12 year old boy when his father died, and his mother went into a decline from which she never recovered. The youngest sibling of his was my mother, all of 2 and a half years old, and he took her under his protective wing from when she could remember. 

Every time I think of the mammoth responsibilities the brothers shouldered, I shuddered. In an unforgiving world, the 7 siblings formed a bond like none others. 

No story about my mother is ever complete without Jayaram Maama and Pattumani Maama. Corporate environments would have made one write the vision statement and the other the mission statement. The younger of the two brothers, Ambi, as he was affectionately known, was the visionary one. He was also the effervescent one. The brothers made it their mission to educate their sisters at a time when most girls were married off at a tender age with an elementary school education – #HeForShe before it became a thing. They were curious combinations of the ritualistic and progressive. (My mother and her sister were the first women graduates from their village and went on to teach High School Maths, Physics and Chemistry)

Always forward looking, always willing to take action for what needs to happen next; his life is a lesson in acceptance, gumption, and constant self improvement. 

Today the skies have cleared up sufficiently for the sun to shine through again. It doesn’t feel apocalyptic anymore. 

Maybe the grand man is ready for the next great adventure. After all, he joined Pattumani on his second death anniversary.

To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter 

The Joys of Walking

There are places where walking is no longer allowed. Especially in densely populated areas where the coronavirus is raging and ravaging the population. Talking to my parents the other day, the father sounded strangely dull. A little prodding revealed that the evening walk was cut from his list of allowed activities for a few days, and I felt keenly for him. I, like him, enjoy nothing more than tying my hands behind my back (unladylike as my mother often said when I was growing up), and taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the air around me. Often, I don’t remember where all my mind has wandered during these walks, but I always come back strangely uplifted, the day’s conundrums a little clearer, and life’s perspectives a wee bit sharper.

I sympathized with the father and told him that all we could do was to make the best of the situation. For instance, I told him,  I had not enjoyed tea in my backyard for all this time. My work spot is a good 50 miles away from where I live, and I spent many an hour getting to and from work. Silently sipping my tea in the backyard before the day at work began the other day, I felt strangely grateful for this time – the time that I would ordinarily have been rattling to work on a crowded train. But that morning as I sat under the cypress trees, watching the sycamore sway in the breeze outside, I slowly raised my head upwards and was dazzled at the most beautiful blue that greeted the eyes.

The father lightened up at this little piece of my day that I shared with him, for he enjoys our backyard too when he visits, and spoke fondly of the squirrels. The squirrels really are admirable as a means of entertainment. They titter, run and make merry all day long in the fruit trees, and before you know it, a pleasurable time has been had by the entertainers and entertained alike. 

Walking makes philosophers of us. How many times have I admired the mallard ducks and the geese for their spirit? All these little creatures that we share the Earth with have to be the most engaging lesson-givers in the world. Squirrels, cats, butterflies, dogs, geese, ducks, and blackbirds – they are all marvelous teachers to the philosopher willing to take in lessons.

We fell into discussing the joys of walking, and he spoke of Thoreau and a number of writers who were known for their musing during their daily walks. We laughed at how some of our best ideas after hours of walking were nothing short of ordinary, while these authors of whom he spoke so highly had truly world-changing ideas at the end of theirs. One day at the end of a long walk, I came back with an epiphany about ducks, I said, and I wasn’t joking. 

ducks

T’was one evening after a nice long walk, I sat by a lake. The waters were clearly more than 20-30 feet in depth, and I remember wondering whether ducks felt any qualms about plunging into waters that deep. Do they examine their toes studying the webbing and decide to swim? Do they stretch their legs knowing it is waddle-worthy? I have watched the ducks hatch their little ducklings countless times in the spring, and watched them teach their young to take to the waters. But how do they know their capabilities? Do they stretch their wings knowing it is intended for flight?  Ducks have to be the most admirable creatures for they adapt to any medium with ease, and seem to enjoy  it. They waddle, swim and fly with ease. 

How about that? 

“Anyway, why don’t you watch what you eat since your daily walks are also cut?” I said taking a large dollop of ice-water and pouring it over his igloo.

The mother came hissing into the phone like a queen bee in-charge of delivering the daily news updates to the BBC at this, and said, “As if! Now, because he is bored, he eats almost continuously from 4-8 p.m!” . We all landed up laughing at this. 

“Must see how these ducks control their diet Appa. But now that I got the chance to observe squirrels, I don’t think they control their diets very much. Munching on fruits all day long, and talking bites out of them and flinging them to the ground without even properly polishing them off!” I said.

And on this note, we said toodle-oo to each other. I continued on a walk grateful that I could indulge in this activity though my mask made me feel sweaty and hot. He went to make himself some coffee to go with his mid-morning snack. We both pondered on life.

A Philosophy of Walking

The Art of Hair

Haircuts, when we were children, were a treat in themselves. As a girl, I watched my father’s hair being snipped and pipped many times. Over time, his bald pate emerged more and more, but our barber never seem to think any less of his job just because he had a balding pate to work with. We lived in a small schooling community, and sometimes the school barber, Velusamy, a sweet, gentle mannered man, stopped by when he was free.

Velusamy set himself up in the garden, fussing over his instruments which he lovingly stowed away in his steel case. He set the chair facing away from the direct rays of the sun, so his subjects need not squint into the sun as he worked his magic on them. He filled a bucket of water, and set his mug near it. He wiped his scissors and blew on his clippers. The wind rustled the trees around us, the bees buzzed, birds chirped, and the good barber trimmed. There was a ritualistic feel to the whole thing: clearly, Velusamy was a man who enjoyed his work. 

Once the setup was done to his satisfaction, he wrapped a cloth around his subjects and set about the task of shearing the sheep clean. The sheep sometimes snoozed in their chairs, and it was imperative to tell the man before hand how much to cut. For the gentle mannered man acquired a gleam when he picked up his tools. He ran his lawn mower over the heads at his mercy without any mercy. 

barber

When he was happy with his task, he held up a rickety mirror, polished clean, at various angles for the subjects to inspect. Rarely were there any adjustments to be made. Sometimes, an involuntary yelp would be emitted seeing the amount of hair gone, but Velusamy would give one of his flattering smiles, and assure them that the hair would grow back. What was there to worry about? There wasn’t much to be said against such sterling good sense. He then cleaned up behind him. His rituals complete, he would accept the flowing gratitude from all in the family for coming all the way for a personalized haircut experience, and after a gentle chit-chat over a cup of tea, he left with a good-ish tip. The men of the house looked spruce and trimmed for days afterward. 

But there were times, when Velusamy’s services were scarce – especially during the school holidays. People attempt all sort of things after watching you-tube videos these days – we did the same after watching Velusamy a few times. You see over the years, my sister and I have rather prided ourselves on the haircuts we have given the little brother when Velusamy could not make it. We were happy for days afterward whenever we saw the little fellow, even though in some places, it looked like a rat had gnawed at his hair. 

Covid-19 has certainly given a lot of people renewed respect for a lot of professions. When barbers open up shop again, I am sure their clientele will flock back to them with gratitude in their eyes. Over video conference calls, there has been a steady rise in the length and density of hair. Seeing people over the past few weeks over Video cam, there came a time when most folks on the video calls seemed to encounter  an obstacle like poor Earl Emsworth did in Blandings Castle:

“Lord Emsworth passed a hand over his chin, to assist thought, and was vaguely annoyed by some obstacle that intruded itself in the path of his fingers. Concentrating his faculties, such as they were, on this obstacle, he discovered it to be his beard. It irritated him. Hitherto, in moments of stress, he had always derived comfort  from the feel of a clean shaven chin. He felt now, as if he were rubbing his hand over seaweed.”

When I read this a few days ago after a day spent trying to discern faces from the ‘seaweed’, I burst out laughing, and could not stop. The men in the family looked at me like I needed to have my head examined. I brushed the mane of my flowing hair, and said while my tresses never looked better, theirs needed some work. The husband leapt backwards clutching his mane, and I gave him a pitying look. Really! One would have thought we were unskilled at hair styling the way they shied away. 

So, I decided to play the trump card. “Oh please! We used to cut my brother’s hair sometimes when he was a kid, and he looked marvelous!” There was some mumbling at this, but I let it slide. 

On a video call with the brother a few  days later, I peered through the foliage and said to my son, “See this guy? Your maama – he was given a perfectly good haircut by me when he was your age. Look at him now.”  The brother mumbled that some scars ran deep, and hence his reluctance to have his haircut even now. I ignored this and said, “Some modest successes under my belt you know?” 

The brother beamed as he said, “I knew she would try to flaunt her success”. I  did not care much for how he unflatteringly put the word success in quotes thrown up in the air,  “But don’t let that sway you. You are better off having your head shaved off little fellow. She is lousy at it!”

I what-what-ed at this treachery. Really  – this brother of mine has a most inconvenient sense of  integrity. “Those haircuts were pure of heart and generous!” I cried stung.

The brother said “Oh! No one doubts your heart or your intentions  – both were as you so rightly say, pure. We are only  discussing results here.” he said and gave into a full throated chuckle that his nephew joined in with heartily. I huffed and I puffed, but the call seemed to have an impact  on the son. He seemed to think that his maama was a nice enough man even though he had endured haircuts from his mother in his youth, so how lasting could the damage be? Maybe it was okay to attempt after all. 

Quiet courage shows up in multiple ways – The men, to our pride, acquiesced to having their hair cut by the daughter and myself.

That is how you saw the men of the nourish-n-cherish household looking slightly uncomfortable as we spread garbage bags on the floor, and clucked away with our scissors. 

 

The Music of Guttural Sounds

“What happened?” I said the concerned mother note seeping into my voice when I heard a guttural moan. The sound I heard started with a low pitch , and then increased in volume and intensity towards the end of the gut-wrenching sound.
Uuurrrgggghhhhhh!”
“What?!”
“What happened?” I asked again for teenagers do not take kindly to having to reply in full sentences after they have felt the need to emit guttural sounds like the one just described.
“Are you missing your friends?” I asked by way of sparing the child the need to speak.

guttural_sounds

“Nooooo..” said the g.sound emitter.
“Well, glad to hear that young lady. I will just send an insta to your friends.”
She laughed because one does not use Instagram to send certain kinds of messages apparently! But the laugh loosened up the neurons controlling speech, for she went from uuuuurrrrgggghhhh to garrulous in 3 seconds. A Ferrari could have taken lessons.

“You know? I really thought high school would be more fun! Like, all these TV shows and you-tubers make it seem. I mean you know how they keep telling you about how kids are on high scale social mode? Parties and stuff.”

“What do you mean?” I asked concerned that a Freudian moment was approaching. Was the child having trouble of some sort? I tugged my super-mom tights on in my mental image (I always imagine super moms wearing Elastigirls costume, and I got to tell you those tights don’t sit well on my short-ish, mother-of-two frame), and waited for her to continue.

Helen_Parr
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57814521

“You know?!” she clucked impatiently, and I was glad to see her brisk impatience make a show again. “All these you-tubers have you think that high school is one long party, and that you just cannot manage all the different parties, and still find a way to study!”

“Hmm…Corona put a stop to that?” I asked. Friends have been sharing topics on loneliness and mental health during these times.

She gave me a pitying look.

“Gosh! Nothing of the sort – we go nowhere, and this is not even Corona-times. I am talking like normal times. I mean, come on! I sometimes take a walk with Shrubs (the nickname she has for her friend) around the neighborhood, sweet talk you into getting me a boba tea sometimes, go to classes and come back. Where is all the partying?” she asked with such sincere yearning that I burst out laughing.

“Well you sometimes go to make stuff for your clubs and such right? In any case, do you want to have that lifestyle?”

“Well .. not exactly. But it would be nice to have that kind of life once in a while, don’t you think? You know – not know which party to go to. I mean I love my little group of friends – but just think! Well…you know what? Having that sort of non-stop fun must be killing those folks right now. This Covid stuff must be really hard. ”

“Isn’t it hard for you though? Do you miss hanging out with your friends?” I asked.

“Sometimes! But this way, I get to hang out with those I want to anyway on FaceTime, and I don’t have to hang out with those I don’t want to. ” and she shrugged.

I have always admired how children adapt and respond to situations.  They wore masks because it was what you had to do. They stayed indoors for the most part, apart from a social-distancing walk.

“You poor things. Why don’t you come and play with me – we’ll play a nice little game tonight.” I said magnanimously offering our company. I should have known better after all these years.

“Nope! Rather moan about stuff! And amma! One more thing. Stop acting like you are on a summer vacay or whatever okay? We have so much work to do. I mean teachers are just getting better and better at assigning stuff to us. ”

“So was that what that uuurrrggghhhh about? I thought you had a pig in labor in your room!” I said.

She guffawed at the simile and said, “Oh that is because we had to correct our Chem test and how! We have to write what we got wrong, why we made the mistake in the first place, and write out the correct answer! ” she said sounding indignant. “Really! Teachers think they have to keep us busy and go on assigning more and more stuff! They can chill right?”

I chuckled. What a warming thought for Teacher Appreciation Week she had?

‘You want to chill? Or you want them to chill my dear?”

“Well…both. How about we chill with a boba tea?” said the sly vixen.

I gave in, and the pair of us sipped the tapioca pearls with a satisfying slurp and emitted a ‘glllluuuuuggg ggguuullllppp’ topped with a giggle. Guttural sounds are musical.

Just-So Indeed!

“What you doing?” I said walking into the squeaky clean kitchen. It wasn’t for nothing that I had knocked myself out for over 2 hours the previous day bringing the house to what I call a livable state again. There is a strain of philosophy in the house that a good home has a certain level of chaos and mess. I sometimes find the homeliness factor gets taken a bit too far for my liking though. That is when, you find me transforming from a mild gurgling stream into a force of nature: I become a steaming river coursing through the hallways cleansing, dousing, stuffing shoes and jackets away from sight, and puffing like St Helens in May of 1980 (about to blow my top in short).

I don’t know what adult-lings and cub-lings in other houses do; but those in my house, exchange discreet stares and with an awkward laugh or two, practice social distancing with an arduous tenacity. Squirrels don’t charge into their holes when the cats are about, with the speed that these cub-lings display. The next morning though, everyone is happy see a contented lioness prowl with a satisfied purring reveling in her clean abode.

“Just making some fresh coffee. ” said the Lion King looking at his lioness with mixed emotions. Should he compliment the cleaning effort and hinge his chances on the good night’s sleep having done its share of the restoring of nerves, or skirt the topic altogether and go in afresh with the fresh-coffee-for-loving-wife angle?

“No…no need to make coffee, I made some filter coffee last night. Should still be fresh! I can use the water for breakfast. ” I said in my briskest taking control of the kitchen voice, and liberally sprinkled some salt into the pot of water set on the stove.

Simba relaxed. Nala seemed fine even after the marathon cleaning session last night. “Well…I’ll make the coffee. Move aside.”

“No…no…it is fresh coffee.”

I suppose if I’d been in the Masai Mara, I’d know how lions handle this sort of domestic spat in the pride-hold. In our household, the Lion King, bravely took a deep breath and said as nonchalantly as possible, as though it were a minor detail, not a big deal at all, you know?
“Oh! I threw out that coffee. ”

I drew myself up. Ready to spring – rally all you will you coffee lovers, but this is ridiculous. What is wrong with coffee that is just a few hours old?!

“Oh my goodness! Must you be this picky and in these times of watchful groceries too!” I said shrewdly playing the Covid card. I was flustered, justifiably in my opinion, unnecessarily so, in the husband’s op.

“Coffee, my dear, needs to be fresh and just-so in order for it to have an effect on the system. Besides, it is my only indulgence.” said he playing the Buddha-card.

“Be Brave Appa! Don’t give up – you like fresh coffee – stand up for yourself. Go Appa Go Appa!” said the cubs watching the unfolding drama with interest.

“Dei! You guys are landing me in trouble now. ” said the husband nimbly moving away from the danger zone with the suavity of gazelles when the lionesses aren’t in a good mood. The man has always had his wits about him.

 

coffee_gazelle

“I’ll make a fresh batch of coffee. Just so indeed.” I said and donned my best sacrificial-women-who-does-everything-in-this-house expression.

The coffee filter gargled and scrabbled its way through the hot water, and the coffee dripped satisfyingly into the container below. I watched it and smiled the smile of expectation. Regardless of the recency of the spat, I must agree that fresh coffee smells good! Could just the aroma have the desired effect to transform the disgruntled into the gruntled?

Moments later, I handed a frothing cup of filter coffee freshly made just-so to him, and went off to make another cup for myself. He was cackling at some joke on his myriad WhatsApp groups when I came back – not surprisingly, it was a wife-joke.

I laughed too, but said, “Really! The number of wife jokes on social media! Why can’t women spend time coming up with husband jokes the same way, huh?! Because we are far too busy making fresh filter coffee for our husbands, that’s why!”

He looked at me, and pulled a Prince Charming smile from his armor, held his coffee cup up for a toast with a grin “That is good coffee! Thank you! ”

I phhooo-shooeyed graciously and made a big show of my sip of c. The first sip felt awkward, but not bad, but the second sip nailed it. This coffee was salty!

“Hey! Anything wrong with this coffee?”

“Nope! It was lovely.” said the husband.

“But it is salty! Did I put salt in the water, and then use that water to make the coffee? Gosh!” I said feeling like a prized ass. After all that show-and-tell about sacrificial goddesses, and stuff, I mean.

“I like my coffee fresh and just-so indeed! How did you drink this muck?!” I said.

“Well, I thought it had a sea-salt flavor!”

“Yes Appa. You tell her! Be brave!” said the cubs again, and I burst out laughing.

“Can I help you with any husband jokes now?” the husband said, looking at my face, and the pair of us laughed so hard that the salt distilled itself out.

Tea!

“There is some Tea in school, and everyone is acting really weird!” said the daughter announcing her entry into the house a couple of years ago, dumping her school bag where it must not be dumped.

“Oh – did you have some? Did you like it?” I said a trifle too eagerly. I am a tea-lover myself, and have been trying to get some company in the house whenever I brew the marvelous beverage. All efforts have fallen flat thus far. The husband likes coffee, and the children swear by chocolate flavored drinks (the teenager also has her tongue out for Boba – a heady mix of tapioca pearls and sugar that suddenly coasted into popularity like the record albums of these young artists you had never heard of before.)

If I could exalt any beverage to Divinity, I would pump for the humble Tea.

teas

I have been teased multiple times about High Tea and every now and then pick up a Miss Read book for she properly exalts Tea and the ritual of Tea drinking:

“The very ritual of tea-making, warming the pot, making sure that the water is just boiling, inhaling the fragrant steam, arranging the tea-cosy to fit snugly around the precious container, all the preliminaries lead up to the exquisite pleasure of sipping the brew from thin porcelain, and helping yourself to hot buttered scones and strawberry jam, a slice of feather-light sponge cake or home-made shortbread.”

“Isn’t Tea just marvelous?” I said again, for the scholar had lapsed into a silence.

“Generally, I am like not opposed to like Tea as long as like it doesn’t like you know like hurt anyone, but this time they are all like acting so weird! I mean like come on! Like nobody is going to remember it like next week!” she said liberally sprinkling the ‘likes’ in the sentence.

I was fogged. When had Tea hurt anyone?

“Please! Please! How many likes will you put into a sentence that doesn’t need ‘Like’ A.n.y.!” I said carefully quoting the ‘like’ in my sentence with air quotes. “If I were to write out that sentence, no one would give you any Tea!” I said, looking proud of myself for bringing the topic of disc back to the marvelous beverage of my dreams and likes.

The daughter looked at me with the tender look one reserves for the dim-witted, and tousled my hair. “Oh! you don’t know what Tea is right?”

I drew myself up. I may not have any accomplishments of note in other areas, but in the area of Tea, you could not say that. “ I am not just boasting about the fact that I can be counted upon to have Tea with Friends any time, I also take pride in knowing some friends who know all about Tea! The Nilgirisis a major producer of the divine drink – the beautiful hills does not only use its marvelous climes to produce this drink of the gods, but also nourishes the people who have the luck of calling the hills their home, you know?” I said looking proud of myself. “And – and I am not done yet! Though I may not be able to tell you the process and the differences in tastes of the different types of Tea, there are plenty of good friends of mine who can. “

tea_plantation

“You’re just salty that your posts on Tea don’t even like get half as many ‘Likes’ as the number of likes in my sentence!” she said.

Ouch!

“OOOOHHHH!” said the cheering squad witnessing the exchange in the kitchen.

“Okay – Like I told you before: you really need to listen to what I say more closely! Anyway, like I was saying: Tea is mildly annoying stuff that isn’t great. It isn’t as bad as Gossip …” she said, knowing how I will frown upon gossip. “but sometimes can start bordering on that line.”

The English Language is ever evolving and fluid language is marvelous to behold. Really Tea is essentially a social activity, even though we have taken to gulping it down to and from meetings in the most unceremonious manner these days. What I would do to have a proper Tea Time marked in the calendar to catch up with friends instead of this frenzied gulping? So, I suppose using Tea as a word for this essential yet inessential banter is amusing and I must appreciate the folks who thought of using it for this purpose.

I remember enlightening my parents on my trip from College about adding Pongal & Kadalai to our jargons.

In college, I found to my amusement that Kadalai and Pongal did not mean groundnuts and boiled rice with lentils & pepper. It refers to Tea with the Gender specifications added in (You ground-nut-ted when with the opposite sex, and Pongal-ed er rice-lentil-with-pepper-ed with those of the same sex)

Essentially, these refer to non-essential communications that are essential. They are the stuff that link us humans together – one groundnut, lentil piece, or cup of tea at a time.

Language and stylistic constructs will continue to evolve, and that is as it should be. Our languages will continue to merge, diminish, and ebb and flow with our populace and time.

“I’d like to sip some Tea while listening to your Tea dear!” I said finally looking proud of myself.
“Good one Amma! Waiting to say that haven’t you?”
“Yep! “I said. Triumph comes in tea-sized bites.

tea_with_friends

The Gingko Trees 🌳

“Did you know about the Gingko trees?” I said, knowing fully well the reaction it would elicit from the daughter.

“Oh Please! There is no need to tell everyone you meet about the Gingko trees you know?” she said.

“But there is! Maybe I will write about it.” I said. The gingko trees have given me no end of pleasure , and I must say, a certain amount of anticipation tinged with a spot of trepidation, during the past few months. The one interesting fact I know about them has been beaten to mythical status and back like the shedding and revival of the seasons.

“Are you seriously telling me that you haven’t written about the blasted Gingko trees yet?” the daughter’s voice was tinged with laughter and embarrassment. The conversation was happening in front of her friends after all.

If you really want to embarrass your teenage child, please take them for a walk explaining obscure horticultural facts along the way. Touch the leaves of the Gingko trees, tell them the scientific name is Gingko Biloba, take them back to the time when the dinosaurs roamed feeding off these very leaves and the time travel is bound to work wonders on them.

Only the teenager most proud of their parents is bound to glow like the dew drops glistening on a Gingko tree at the first rays of the sun. Mine looked like a cross between a beetroot and a maple 🍁 . I stood there poetically exclaiming that the beautiful Gingko trees had shed their golden tresses after all; happy that the interesting fact had been borne out truly by the sturdy trees.

gingko_2.jpg

Months before, as the colors of the leaves changed from olive green to golden yellow, I had told her about the fact that Gingko trees shed their leaves all at once.

“Don’t they all?!” she said being clever, but I had my answer ready.

“No they don’t as the crunch parties we have all of October and November show you. But the Gingko trees in the vicinity all shed together on one day in November apparently.” I said. “It is like the day of the party, and they somehow decide the day between themselves. Nature’s signals are truly quixotic!”

“Did you also know that Gingko trees have been around from the days of the dinosaurs?”
“And how do you know that?” the family asked looking at me curiously, as if my age was finally becoming clear to them. I did not like where this was going, and hastily assured them that paleontologists seemed to have found fossils and put their necks on the line with that fact.

Ever since, throughout November, we watched the Gingko trees with fascination, and self with a tinge of dread, for I had bored the family stiff with tales of the Gingko tree ever since I read the essay by Oliver Sacks in the book, Everything in its Place. He wrote of his learnings from the Horticultural Society of which he was a part, and he had said quite categorically that the Gingko trees party was one day in mid November.

gingko

Mid November came and went, and the yellow leaves swung their tresses proudly as the cold winds coursed through them. Rains lashed at them, and they swished them some more. Haughty Princesses they’d make, I thought to myself.

Thanksgiving came and went, and the family was now baring their fasts at me. “After all those months with the blasted gingko tree, if they don’t shed, you’ve had it Mother dear!” they said. I said that November in New York probably meant December in California, but I also prayed a little. You see, I had made a bit of a pest of myself over the past few months, and I knew it. Oh the horror if they didn’t!

December came, and I went out of the state for a couple of weeks. I cannot say that the Gingko trees were in my thoughts for very long during this time. Year end work-travels don’t give time to think of Gingko trees.

I came back, and I had come for the walk with the girls, when the Gingko trees swam into my thoughts again. Luckily for me, Oliver Sacks, was an astute man. Though, I don’t know whether they had all shed their leaves on the same day, when I saw them, all the Gingko trees in the vicinity, young and old, were bare. Their leaves lay in a heap around their trunks, and I looked vindicated. Thank you Oliver Sacks and Thank you Gingko Trees! I said privately heaving a sigh of relief.

I told the girls about the whole thing: the pest I’d made of myself, and how the solid trees had helped me after all, and they laughed heartily. “I told you my mom is a nature kook! ” said the daughter, but there was laughter there – I seemed to have redeemed myself in front of her friends.

I am not sure when I will be willingly invited next: I’d better get going on some Spring facts to dazzle the lot.

everything_place

Book: Everything in its Place

By: Oliver Sacks

Essay: The Night of the Gingko

Children of Stories

Fresh smells of laundry detergent wafted up from the warm pile surrounding me on the bed. Despite the many piles that needed folding, I felt a strange sense of gratitude for a chore that allowed me to sit on the bed for a few minutes while folding them. (My commute doesn’t always accord me the ability to sit, my days are hectic, and my meals erratic –  Yes! I was feeling benign and contented with this.) 

Every time I sit with the laundry, my mind climbs the Faraway Tree. How often I think of Dame Wash-a-lot of the Magic Faraway Tree? I don’t have the satisfaction of pouring bucketfuls of water from my perch high above in the trees on certain heads, of course, but one cannot ask for everything in this world. 

The_Magic_Faraway_Tree
Attribute author: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3693995

The son frisked onto the bed smelling like the fragrant soap in the bathroom after his long shower in which a number of valiant battles were fought.

Today’s battle was a long and strenuous one, but Iron Man had emerged victorious after throwing Thanos into the Deep Trench of Despair (I shudder to think of where I will actually find the action figure).

 

My own little Iron Man was full of the milk of human kindness that Tony Stark said was required in this world, and said “Shall I help?”

I thought for a moment, smiled at him, and  said, “Sure, but I wish I could read with you though!” 

“Okay, I’ll read to you,” said he and bounded out. He came back with a few picture books clutched in his hands. 

His choice of books for the day were just what was required for a spot of laundry folding.

Pen – By Christopher Myer

IMG_3910

My Pen, brings out what we wish we could do with our own imaginations. His pen fights battles, tucks elephants in tea cups, sails over imaginary oceans, captures gory wars while appealing to our humanity. The book is beautifully illustrated in black & white, and every now and then, the son stopped to show me a particularly appealing one, and we both admired the pictures. 

His second book, A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers, was an equally worthy choice. A child goes to to say how she likes to think of herself in terms of the books she has read. 

This book reminded me of a book, B-O-O-K by David Miles and Illustrated by Natalie Hoops,  that we look at every now and then. A beautiful meditation on the word, B-O-O-K. Every illustration takes us deeper and deeper into the different worlds books open up for us. The worlds that never really leave us, worlds that teach us something every time we enter it, worlds that refresh us just with the memory of it, worlds where we wish we can live in.

IMG_8731

Dame Wash-a-lot smiled down at me from her treetop, and I giggled. The son looked quizzical and I told him about her character and how certain characters stay with you long after you stopped reading books about them. Dame Wash-a-lot who lives in the Magic Faraway Tree in the Enchanted Wood is there when I take care of the laundry; the silly Saucepan Man with his Pots and Pans  is there when I am tumbling around with my own set of pots and pans in the kitchen; Moon Face is there when I see the benign face of the moon on the evenings I do myself the favor of raising my eyes heavenwards and admiring the moon muttering to myself about Ceraunophilia (love of the moon).

“Like my Avengers and super-heroes are there with me!” said the son. 

“Dame Wash-a-lot would have socked Thanos with her soapy water with half the noise you made in there!” I said, and we dissolved into a fresh set of giggles again discussing the strange noises during the heat of the shower battles.

Maybe we are Children of Stories.

The laundry took double the time it usually takes, but how enjoyable the whole task became?!

For the Love of Libraries

“We are going to give you something special!” coo-ed the nieces as soon as I landed in India.
“What is it? I don’t really want anything, just time to spend with you lovely girls.” said I, ever the Aunt imparting Valuable Life Lessons.
They smiled it away without batting an eyelid. Life Lessons – pish tosh bigosh! If, as a child, you don’t know how to ignore that stuff, you’ve learnt nothing in life was the philosophical angle the children seemed to take and I appreciated them for it.
“Yes, yes we know. But you will really like what we have planned for you!” they said in unison. “It is an Experience!”

The children obviously knew where to get me, loop me with my own tune – Experiences are worth more than Possessions.

I grinned expecting a trip to the ice-cream store across the street. That was an experience for sure. There were flavors there that made me swoon. Could I have the coconut -lemon and the orange-watermelon and mango and jackfruit flavored ones?

Come evening, we all headed out. The nieces ,with touching sincerity, told me that they would forfeit their quota in my honor, given how much I would like where we are going. All highly puzzling so far.

When we finally made our way through the Gulmohar lined streets, the skies looking beautiful and benign over the towering apartment buildings, I stopped and watched the excitement build in their faces, as we turned the corner. Beaming at me in a small two-roomed store front tucked away near eateries and grocery stores, was a tiny library. I gave them a slow, wide smile. This was amazing. Off we went inside. I was grateful that the children had access to this small lending library.  (Yes – we stopped for ice-cream afterwards.)

bookworm_readingcorner.png

The lack of easy access to public libraries in India has always been a sore point with me. As long as we are in school and college, we have access to libraries in some form or another – the institutions themselves have them. Even if the Engineering college library lacked sorely in the Literature section, one could read IEEE journals to pass the time. I am immensely grateful to the librarians in my schooldays. During our school holidays, the librarian in my mother’s school, Mr Gandhi, would happily supply me with books enough to whet my appetite (Life’s blessings come in many forms – my mother’s school vacations did not coincide with ours, so their library was still open). Years later, when I came home with a broken leg to recuperate, Mr Gandhi, sent books that he thought I would like. That kind of care from anybody is touching. It is no wonder that one of my earliest career aspirations was to be a teacher and a librarian.

When first I moved to the big city, I felt unmoored without a library to frequent. I dedicated a Saturday morning every month for the trip across the city to the used books market, and pile up on books to read, making my way back with a teetering pile of books (I had no idea about the concept of copyright, how payments were made to authors etc). Most were in bad condition, not great authors or titles, but I took what I could. It was my only indulgence.

I read somewhere that people don’t really feel the need for Art if it was never a part of their life. But once exposed to the beauty and depth of any Art, if taken away, the void is there. An emptiness that you didn’t know existed. That resonated with me, for I feel the same way about libraries and access to good books.

I mourned the day the physical books stores went out of business in the United States. In every mall, every shopping street, I kept my eyes open for a place to dip into. There were none.

We bought clothing and fabrics simply because we were there and the clothes lured me through the shop windows.
We drank coffee because the coffee store was there.
We ate ice-cream b – well you get the gist.
But we didn’t read books with differing viewpoints and thoughts that could rejuvenate the brain because they weren’t there.

I chatted with the nieces once we were back here, and I asked them what they had checked out that week from their little sweet library. “Oh…they closed it now in the afternoons because they are using the space for English and Math tuitions.” they said, and I couldn’t help whimpering.

When we place so much importance on clothing that we change out everyday, shouldn’t we place more on thoughts that flit in and out even more constantly?

A quote from one of my favorite books, Fahrenheit 451, By Ray Bradbury:
There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

I wish we all get to the chance to experience Ray’s Bradbury’s nugget of wisdom:

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
Ray Bradbury

Also read :

Brain Pickings: Oliver Sacks on Libraries
Brain Pickings: How Libraries Save Lives