Is Earthly Music Universal?

“What is this? Australian music? I thought we were in Africa! “, said the little fellow peering into the dashboard up by the driver’s seat.

“Yes- my young man! We have moved on from the plains of the Masai Mara to the deserts of Australia. Traveling the world during lockdown. Feel adventure in your veins!”

He rolled his eyes. His teenage sister has taught him well. 

“Remarkable isn’t it? How we are able to traverse the world in an instant these days? In the years of Ibn Batuta or Marco Polo, I suppose you had to wait to shimmy your way into the audiences of the explorers to get a glimpse of a world other than your own. “

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We had taken a drive to catch the fall colors in the nearby mountains, and I was seated in the front-seat clasping the task of deejay dearly. I am usually entrusted with this important task only after several rules have been put in place.

🎼 You are allowed one Carnatic music not more than 7 minutes long (I do have a bone to pick with Carnatic musicians who take up my allotted 7 minute slot with one line)

🎵 Instrumental – cannot be slow, slow music. (Drivers got to stay awake.)

🥁 Everyone’s got to get a chance at their music

🎻 No weird music

“Yet…just look at us swiping away and traveling the world 🌍 with YouTube music? Lockdown or no lockdown. How remarkable music is no? Transports you straight out of this world into another world altogether!” I said. The husband and children gave me looks of amused tolerance that they seem to reserve for holidays and trips. Indulgence, sure, but also a joy in seeing my whimsy rise to the surface. 

The brilliant Youtube recommendations engine stood on the side panting and scratching its head trying to figure out what to recommend next based on my list of songs. Ahh! That happy feeling you get when you stump an AI algorithm is truly priceless. Scottish bagpipers marched down the dales of Scottish highlands with their music; middle eastern belly dancers flexed their tummies with grace and agility; shepherds tended to their livestock with Bulgarian folk dance music; and royal court musicians of Turkish sultans from the past bravely set forth their music to the unwittingly pulled in audience in the car. 

“Ummm – what music is this?”, said the son when I played the Bulgarian folk song, Izlel e delyo haydutin, By Valya Balkanska.

This, my dear, is what the universe would hear if ever anyone intercepts Voyager on its space voyages, and finds a way to extract the music within. It is part of the Golden Record. It is now hurtling through space making  our earthly music universal. ”

Laniakea

“Please! Appa – what is this? I am happy to see Amma this happy I suppose, but this is too much. Can we have some, like, normal, music? “ asked the teenaged daughter. 

“What?! If I may remind everyone in this car, this coming from one who is constantly the one asking me to try new types of music. Who is forever berating me for listening to toiyan-toiyan music (instrumental music)? Amma jazz it up a bit! Shall I create a playlist for you with my favorites so you can listen to it? – huh?! “

She gave into a high pitched laugh, and said, “Yes I meant different genres as in rock, jazz, country, pop, not bagpipes, bongo drums, and what is this now?! Doesn’t sound like an instrument at all!”

“That’s because it isn’t”, I said happily. “We are listening to whale songs now.”

“Okay…that’s it! All deejay rights revoked for some time now. Whale songs! Pass me that phone!”

“Nope!”

And to this musical, lyrical bickering, was added the sounds of harmony, resulting in an orchestra of noises. The trees, that night, as they passed their messages to one another, rustled in excitement. How long since they had heard natural sounds of whales?

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Turmeric Magic

I felt a surge of amusement when I made cauliflower last time. The grocery lists needed love, and the results were showing.

“Yay Cauliflower!” yipped the young son, beaming like the early rising golden moon at this wonderful treat. Moments later, the moon face drifted under the clouds and his face looked disappointed as he looked at the pale muck of a curry that had been ladled onto this plate. “This isn’t Cauliflower curry! Isn’t it usually golden?” he said.

“Yeah ma – this one looks so pale. Like it needs some Vit D or something – should I take it for a walk in the sun?” said the daughter.  

I laughed at their reaction. Running a home can be tricky business in the best of times. My grocery lists are not things one writes home about even then (newspaper articles maybe but not to one’s mothers). In Covid times, I beam when we get by with everyone fed at reasonable times. Of course, this means I had to throw 2 tantrums since nicely asking did not seem to work. (I know!)

  1. Tantrum#1: 
    1. Venue:  work
    2. Subject: No meetings between 12:30 & 1:15! 
    3. Result: Sheesh kebabs reactions but people finding ways to accommodate this unreasonable ask
  2. Tantrum #2:
    1. Venue: home
    2. Subject: All people requiring daily sustenance will come to eat between 12:30 & 1:15!
    3. Result: Jeez-whats-with-her flavored eye rolls, followed by expressions as if indulging the local idiot 

Anyway, what happened was that we had run out of turmeric powder. As any decent south-indian cook will tell you, this simplest of spices is a must in almost everything that makes its way to a stove-top. It was only when one does not have the little sprinkling does one realize the joy and gaiety in the dishes thanks to it. It is like a drop of sunshine in the blobs of goo, and the children picked up on that. 

For the next few days, I quietly turned up more discolored dishes. The jokes became more raucous. Even the taste seemed altered. It is curious how tuned our sensory systems worked: taste seemed better if we liked how they looked, they even smelled more appetizing when they looked that scintillating yellow. Seeing that the world seemed a less vibrant place sans turmeric, the husband quietly made a special grocery run after the third day of discolored dishes. 

That day, I felt like a particularly gifted potion maker working her magic with the spices:

“…The beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses…” – Professor Severus Snape – Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.

I am glad to say that the folks seated around the table glowed from the rays of the yellow mellow sun at this meal.

“Wow! Everything is golden and sunny again!”

“Yep! Appa got turmeric at the grocery store!” I said, and the children cackled.

“Who’d have thought we would miss turmeric?” said the daughter. 

“Well Marco Polo certainly did!” I said. “The world was altered thanks to turmeric, pepper and ginger! So, I suppose it is okay to miss it.” I could see the little titbit had their interests piqued, and they listened in spite of themselves. 

The Travels of Marco Polo

“Many explorers started out in the medieval ages trying to find newer and better routes to the Indian subcontinent for spices. Marco Polo attempted an exploration that lasted almost 24 years . He made his way from Venice in Italy through the Mediterranean seas, past the harsh climates of the deserts in the middle east and the Himalayas in the north and north-east, as he went on past modern-day Tibet all the way to the Gobi Desert in China. His travels along the silk road were published in 1298 and are still sought after – The Travels of Marco Polo! “

“I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed”
― Marco Polo, on his deathbed

“So, you see – It is probable that this brave explorer in search of turmeric, pepper and other spices, altered world history and our grocery lists forever!” I said. 

The discussion then turned to European explorers setting out to find new routes to the Indian subcontinent, silk roads and trade routes. The history of the world, and how we have always been more interconnected on this planet than we realize, is fascinating.

The golden dishes took on an extra flavor with the story of the spices, and I sat back contented and grateful for a good meal in these times of the pandemic.

The Domestic Explorer

There are things every explorer wants to do. Whether it is as drastic as Thoreau spending 2 years, 2 months and 2 days in a cabin in the woods, or Kate Harris finding herself in the process of exploring the Silk Road, there are aspirations for us to reach that state of mind where we can look past the hustle and the bustle of our daily lives. A form of reflection that one gets to experience once in a while, but has no idea how to sustain. (At least I have had no luck at it.)

Quote from Lands of Lost Borders:

“I’m not sure where I go when I spin wheels for hours on end like that, except into the rapture of doing nothing deeply.”

I think Kate Harris’s moving, poignant, lyrical, poetic, beautiful meditations on being, belonging, and living is well on it’s way to becoming one of my favorites. I have re-read sections of it soon after finishing it. Hers is a marvelous mind (I am grateful she penned her thoughts and found a publisher for us to enjoy). It does make me wonder sometimes how many others there are out there, who have similarly exalted thought processes, a Being larger than being squashed into narrow compartments that we seem to slot ourselves into: A Higher Order Thinker.

Kate Harris’s work is one for every traveler’s soul. Every body who has ever dreamed of adventures, ever dreamt of being bigger than your circumstances, hers is an invitation to sample what is possible. For everyone who is unable to sample the world with all its worries and problems, Lands of Lost Borders is there.

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The author writes of her journey across the oldest and possibly most famous road in the World, The Silk Route. Wanting to lose herself in the other worldly, she lands up finding herself on the oldest roads known to civilization.

Along with her friend Mel, the two women cycle through Turkey, the Stan-countries after Russia’s disintegration (Turkemistan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan), China, Tibet, Nepal and finally India – camping along the way, accepting the kind hospitality of friends and strangers along the way, navigating authorities, paper work and visa restrictions that make us want to throw our hands up in despair. A true voice of an explorer.

Her voracious reading sparkles in the form of quotations and anecdotes – Carl Sagan, Marco Polo, Charles Darwin, Russell Harris, Wright brothers are all in attendance adding their rich experience to the journey. Her clear heart blurs borders while sizing up people. Sitting up in bed with the wind roaring outside, the rains lashing, it is bliss indeed to pedal relentlessly through the high mountains, past lakes, punishing deserts and sketchy neighborhoods. Two women alone in an alien world.

As she quotes every so often,

“Every explorer dies of heartbreak.”

This is one of those books that will stay with me for a long time. I had the privilege of reading this book alongside another of Miss Read’s comfortable, cozy book. This book of travel and adventure was the perfect pairing to the domestic pleasures that a Miss Read book conjures up.

In Miss Clare Remembers, Miss Read writes about a young child of 8 or 9, who was excited and flushed after seeing the snowdrops when they went out on a school nature walk. Afterwards inside the home of the local farmer, where the farmer’s wife had kindly laid out biscuits, milk and cut fruit for the hungry children, she realizes how much she requires both pleasures in order to thrive. With a clairvoyance that children sometimes possess, she appreciates the vast spaces that nature provided for her soul to soar; and the cozy domestic pleasures where she can feel nurtured and at home. A safe haven from her flights of adventure.

Quote from Emily Davis – By Miss Read:

“One was her nest. The other was the place in which she stretched her wings, and soared, as effortlessly as the lark outside, into a different dimension.”

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I felt that way while reading the Lands of Lost Borders together with a Miss Read book. I savored the stars kindly drawing the constellations out for the explorers to reach out to every night; as much as I enjoyed the domestic problems of a normal life. Ensconced in the modern comforts of living, reading both the books in parallel left me with a deeply delighted sense of having both adventure and comfort, and feeling grateful for it.

I am not sure my blogs can do justice to the books, but it seems a perfect way to begin winding down the year.