Places – 3

Earlier this week I was coming back through the lobby of my office building with the lunch I had just purchased in one hand, the other hand reaching in to find the electronic card that would let me in through the security turnstiles, when my boss, heading out to buy his own lunch appeared in my peripheral vision, his hand raised in a gesture demanding a high five.  I returned the gesture, trying to make it look as natural as possible given my discomfort with all high five and fist bump types of actions.  A few seconds ticked away during the process leaving nothing but a sense of absurdity in their wake.

A gesture of camaraderie such as the one noted above would have made so much more sense with anyone else.  In this case I just proceeded to the elevator with an expression of derisive mirth as I thought about all the stresses from just a few months ago, nights of lost sleep, expressions of lament to anyone who would care to listen, getting nauseous at the “this too shall pass” panacea that listeners offered.  All a distant memory now.  Not because these moments passed but because they became irrelevant.  How I felt a few months ago about the events that transpired was absurd, the events themselves were absurd and the way things stand now underscore absurdity encore because they don’t appear to have followed from anything that preceded them.  Context appears to be as fungible and perishable as bananas on a supermarket shelf.

Our memories define us and one would assume how we behave today has some relationship to how we felt the day before, or what we did the day before, or what was done to us the day before, but that is so rarely the case.   We look for themes, we yearn to impose an ex-post narrative upon the scatter diagram within the Cartesian coordinates of our lives.  But if there is a pattern it is stretched on a canvas so grand in scale that we can’t possibly discern it during our short lifetimes.

Take the cauliflower leaf for instance, the outline of which was being traced by my dad on graph paper, on a day when I had accompanied him to his office.  This was when he was working at Sabour Agricultural College in a place called Sabour, the back of the beyond of backward Bihar; not even remotely comparable to the whiteness of Canada or the bluish green Pacific charm of Hawaii.  I can’t recall if Sabour was a village or a town or just something in between.  We lived there for a couple of years.  I was six years old and my brother was three.  I was somewhat fond of the place.  I never forgot the seven or eight mango trees around the house, the other families with kids my age all living in close proximity, the parks, the gardens.  It was a carefree time for a six year old.

What could be better than eating mangoes by the bucket and romping around wild? But in retrospect I sense it was a dark phase for my parents who had returned to India after six years of being in the United States.  Sketching the outlines of a cauliflower leaf on graph paper isn’t something that a research scientist, used to working with state of the art electron microscope technology of those times, did.  It was random, it was absurd and I can’t understand how it helped along the general narrative of our lives.  Ranipur and Kumaitha to Honolulu and Ottawa and then a place like Sabour makes it all look so random and so lacking in any grand design, just like the high fiving moment with my boss during a senseless filler moment of the day. But these interstitial phases of our lives, when we are waiting and wondering if something better will ever come along, often cause our biggest miseries.

We shared our living quarters with another family at Sabour.  It was a type of duplex with a large shared courtyard.  The lady on the other side was well settled in the life of Sabour and directed some taunts toward my mom who insisted that her two babies would never do any growing up in that godforsaken place.  She insisted that we would be out of there soon and that my brother and I would not forget our English and adopt the slow-as-molasses Bihari Hindi drawl of that region.  She was quite alarmed at the prospect of that happening!

In retrospect these were just two years of our lives but the two years must have felt like an eternity of miseries and worries to them at that time, a time when as a young couple with two young children, they were at the peak of their worries about what the future held and how they could either mold it and shape it or let it rest, contented or resigned to “fate”.

Then out of the blue an opportunity materialized out of the ether, a new clearing in the woods, a new direction, setting us all on a path that could not have been logically deduced.  For my parents this was the move to Delhi.  The place where we were to be for the next ten to fifteen years.

So I sit here waiting for my clearing in the woods, for the path that’s out there, obscured in fog or just unseen by me even if it sits in plain sight.  I know this much is true: whatever that next step is it’s not something that will follow, de rigeur, from whatever it is I am doing at this moment.  I can’t plan for it at least not in any conscious way.  But I do wish I was blessed with some fog lamps!

Places – 2

So many of us, especially the believers in a western, non-fatalist, deterministic line of thought are certain we can plan our lives.  Much effort and much thought goes into having a vision and then directing and acting in a self-written play, taking center stage, lifting the curtains on the enactment of our own scripts.  We want it rendered alive, drawn out of the recesses of our brains and made real.  Willpower plays a key role and certain cinematic cliches like “if you build it they will come” or people saying “dream big”.

I am attracted to this line of thought as well.  I make lists, I set goals, I resolve to do certain things, not do certain things.  I gain immense satisfaction from checking things off my lists.  My notebooks and journals are full of plans and lists.  I have spreadsheets that track our expenses, I have repayment schedules chalked out for my debts, I have fitness goals, writing goals, I want to train hard enough to become a seasoned musician, I want to live in a home that isn’t mortgaged and drive a car that’s paid off, I want to share breakfast with my family every morning; I, like everyone else, believe that these things could make me happy because if I live here, in this country, at this point in time then I have to believe in the pursuit of happiness.  All my steps and all my missteps are taken in an elusive pursuit of happiness while the definitions of happiness keep morphing as I become a different person from one day to the next.

But this is what it always remains, despite the stacks of notebooks chock full of plans and lists and grand visions, we never move from pursuit to destination.  There’s nothing wrong with an eternal pursuit, this is what life is all about, but as I grow older I realize that the most gratifying moments in my life have been the unplanned ones, the serendipitous ones.  Something unexpected happens, as it did for my Dad when he took off for Hawaii, and everything changes.  “Plans” almost always get relegated to the dark attic-like space in the surrounding ether that stores all the roads that weren’t taken because we took detours from the most obvious plans, from the ones that appeared to be the most logical segues at any instant.

The most logical segue for me in 1988 certainly wasn’t a final move to the United States.  I was in the middle of a master’s degree in Economics.  I was uninspired and listless and not at all at home with the mind-boggling squiggles of Econometrics.  The prospect of another year of mastering something that was so challenging and so uninteresting was unpalatable in the extreme but I was resigned to it.  I was sticking to the plan and willing to put myself through every stage of the torture, despite distractions, despite immense boredom.  The plan was to finish that degree.  But something unexpected happened again when my dad got a Fulbright scholarship that was to take him on a tour of universities within several states in the US.

I remember those days, I remember standing at the terrace of our New Delhi flat at Mandakini Enclave, gazing at the horizons, wondering what life had in store for me.  Boredom was the most overwhelming state back then, with distraction close on its heels.  I also had a very distressing asthma condition and my parents had been assured by a doctor at the Patel Chest Institute that my problem might go away with a change of venue; a change that would take me 7,000 miles away, perhaps.

So the biggest and most pleasant surprise of my life was when mom and dad asked me if I wanted to accompany dad to the US.  As if they needed to ask! Of course, of course! I had never wanted anything more than I wanted that.

I was often asked what I would do in the US.  Unlike others my age who came here having secured an admission to an Ivy League institution, or some others who got married early and followed a spouse here, I didn’t have a plan.  I used to say I would “earn and learn”, that this is what Americans did.  A vision of learning while earning was all I had, no other plans, no other details fleshed out.   And even this broad vision was only trotted out for the curious, the nosy.  All I wanted was to break free, to start afresh.  I wanted to see my own footprints in the sand as my fingers slipped from my dad’s guiding grasp, amidst a pool of tears – both his and mine – as I walked on with steps that were shaky and determined at the same time.

Places – 1

I like listening to Ranipur and Kumaitha stories whenever I am sitting in a living room of the 17th floor of my parent’s apartment building in Ottawa, watching the sun set at the Rideau River, the skies the color of mystic topaz.  In my mind, I occupy some sort of a moving point within the imaginary lines of the scalene triangle marked out by these three points on the globe: Ranipur, Kumaitha and Ottawa.  Or perhaps the boundaries of my existence don’t map out a triangle at all; There would be too many points left out in a shape as restrictive as a triangle.  What of Honolulu, Patna, Sabour, Delhi, Columbia, Washington DC, Baltimore, Hackettstown and New York? Perhaps it’s more of an amorphous and amoebic shape that our footprints have traced.

People are always curious about my antecedents.  They want to know where I am from.  I still haven’t figured out a short answer to this question.  What could the short answer be? My parents still don’t have any trouble saying they are from India and my daughter could just say New Jersey and be done with it.

I don’t have the luxury of a short answer in a country where attention spans are short and most questions are rhetorical; demanding a non-answer or no answer at all, and the question is asked in the first place because the person doing the asking is stocking some shelves in his or her brain and wants to be able to find a special shelf for me.  The answer I give could put me on a shelf for which I don’t particularly care. 

When I have the luxury of a leisurely answer I tell them I was born in Hawaii (at the US-Canada border the officers sometimes want to know how that came to be), grew up in New Delhi, did some more growing up in Maryland and DC and then ended up in New Jersey.  An answer that could be a head-scratcher for those shelf-stockers.  In the end I probably get stashed on a shelf reserved for miscellany or exotics.  Of course there are always those who walk up to me and want to know, “habla Espanol?” and still others who ask if I am from Ethiopia or Somalia – maybe something about the longish nose, the eyes the curly hair, the dark complexion, who knows?

I can’t name any one place as a starting point for me.  Even though, as a child I used to view the slides and photographs from Hawaii as often as I could, I was entranced by the colors on the island, the blues, the greens, the exquisite colors of the saris my mom wore, saris that were still fresh from her trousseau.  She never gave the impression of being in an alien environment there, she always looked gorgeous and at home, even with her two long plaits of thick hair; a hairstyle not seen in 1960s Hawaii.  They were so young and in such a perfect place.  I recall with vivid clarity a picture of my mom standing next to a hibiscus plant, the colors were so rich, so tempting, I used to feel I could sink deep into the picture if I stared long enough and hard enough.

As the show went on a little baby made an appearance in the frames projected on the walls and that baby born in the month of June, the month of the pearl, on an island that is often referred to as the pearl of the Pacific, was enveloped in all the love and care her two very young parents showered on her.

Every time I saw these slides I felt special.  When school was dreadful, when friends were hard to come by, when teachers frightened me and any spectacular academic achievement seemed impossible in an intensely competitive world, I could lose myself in pictures of Hawaii and convince myself that my life would be exciting and different, because the starting point of my narrative was unusual…in my mind.  The shimmering Pacific of my dreams always soothed and comforted me and kept me from lapsing into the dread of ordinariness.

So they reminisce now, towering high above the streets of Ottawa.  They launch Google Earth on their computers once a day and trace the rural roads that lead right up to their ancestral homes in Ranipur and Kumaitha.

Dad peers at the aerial view of Ranipur, a small village near the city of Bettiah, in the middle of the erstwhile Bettiah Raj, where he took his very first steps.  His dad, a freedom fighter, a Gandhian, born at the tail end of the 19th century, couldn’t see beyond the vision of an India free of the British.  That was the only thing on his mind.  He was beaten by the British, jailed by them for passive resistance and satyagraha and each instance made his resolve stronger.  But there were some moments of reflection when he gazed upon his son playing in the courtyard and dad remembers my Baba asking him,”What will you do when you grow up? Will you be a rickshaw puller?” Maybe he knew India would be free and independent soon enough but he couldn’t envision a bright future for his son within independent India.

Mom traces the roads that led up to the village where she grew up, a village called Kumaitha.  I always thought Kumaitha was a funny sounding name, but she mentioned it came about when Kumbhkarana, on his quest to vanquish Rama and company, sat there for some rest and relaxation, “Kumbh baitha” (Kumbh sat here) became Kumaitha.  I recall the maternal side of the my family being constantly ribbed and ridiculed by my dad about their propensity for long siestas, a la Kumbhkarana.

My mom’s grandfather and my own grandfather were contemporaries and friends.  Both of them fighting the British in the Gandhian way, both passionate about the cause, they rode the crest of this passion all the way, until they breathed their last.  Their dedication, their work, their sacrifices bore fruit.

I hear these stories and make attempts to juxtapose the trajectory of my own life against the stories of these ancestors and it makes me question the heft of “nature” in the “nature vs nurture” debate.  Do I possess these genes of passion, of conviction? Or did nurture overwhelm nature completely, vanquishing it, making me a privileged and complacent person, lackadaisical about so many things and taking so much for granted?

I live in a world where I don’t have to imagine my daughter pulling a rickshaw.  But she is also a child of privilege, how many things would she take for granted?

Dad and mom talk about a large chunk of their pre-Independence childhood spent playing in the dirt.  Dad was in the Gandhian system of basic schooling.  He tells me about Basic School and how all they did was weave thread from cotton, dig the earth using a shovel, plant things.  There wasn’t much emphasis on anything academic.  The focus appeared to be the development of efficient agrarian skills.  He never wore anything but khadi growing up.  My grandfather passed away when he was twelve and I hear stories about the rest of his childhood where all the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing were essentially being covered by the wave of goodwill that was my grandfather’s legacy.  I hear about him trudging several miles, the first of every month, to collect the money for his school expenses from someone who wanted to see him get a good education.  He didn’t enter the world of academics until a much later age and had no English until 8th grade.

It is always amazing and fascinating to me that he ended up in Hawaii on a grant from the East West Center of the University of Hawaii for a doctoral program in plant physiology, given his entirely rural background; by some benevolent quirk of fate the rickshaw pulling prophecy was dodged and dismissed.

This fascination of mine will endure for me as it does for my parents.  There must have been so many days of despondence, of not knowing what life had in store for them, of wondering, of frustration until things literally turned on a dime (or 25 paisa coin) for my dad and someone encouraged him to fill up an application that would have him winging his way more than half way across the world.  The 25 paisa application that he reluctantly filled out at the urging of a professor at his college.

Grandmas, Moms, Daughters and Granddaughters

It has been so long since I wrote anything that I am having some trouble taking the first few steps again. I feel as though I might stumble and fall and I picture myself falling off a wheelchair, crawling ahead while a glowing figure in white beckons, signaling me forward saying, “Come on, you can do it, you can do it, it’s just like riding a bicycle!”

(This all knowing, glowing figure in white didn’t do enough research to find out that I never learnt how to ride a bicycle either…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

I was reading obsessively and thinking about things while I wasn’t writing. I felt (actually knew it with certainty) as though everything I would ever want to say had already been said and that my thoughts and ideas weren’t novel and there wasn’t anything unique or singular about my perspective. So why write?

I am trying to overcome that particular speed bump today by telling myself that if I can’t stand out from the multitudes then perhaps I should add my voice in unison and just write about whatever everyone else is writing in this viral world of ours.

My friend Shankari tagged me on a mommy post yesterday (I doubt there are any blogging mommies left who haven’t received this tag yet…time to move on to daddies). This was a rather welcome tag because there was some hope that it would pull me out of the writer’s block in which I find myself firmly cemented.

(The last few paragraphs are still me crawling on all fours toward the muse-like figure in white. I am struggling with the ordering of my thoughts, struggling with coherence. Perhaps this entire post will be a long struggle, followed by some warm-up exercises, some stretching; some flexing of fingers with the hope of eventual culmination into an ordered and coherent march of words. Readers would have to sit through some meandering and random thoughts and lots of backstory before I actually get to the Mommy tag. Also, note that I said I have been reading obsessively so be prepared for some random quotes.)

I don’t have the words to explain how I felt when I saw a black and white picture of my mother from the time when she was five years old, c. 1946. I had never before seen a picture of my Mom as a little girl. There were tons of pictures of my Dad at every age but no pictures of my Mom in any family albums. As a kid I used to go through the old scrapbooks with their quaint little corners painstakingly glued to each page and each picture carefully inserted within. But they were pictures of my Dad, my paternal uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins. The first time my Mom was ever photographed appeared to have been after her wedding. We wondered about the absence of photography in her family (as I write this I feel like spoofing “The Flintstones” theme song – Jha-jis/ you were the Jha-ji’s/ weren’t you a modern stone-age fam -i -ly …don’t be mad, Mommy!). It wasn’t as though photography wasn’t relished by all in the 1940s.

The story we were told was that all my Mom’s pictures had been spirited away by her younger brother, my uncle, the self-appointed family archivist. He had left home early for studies and then for a mining engineer’s job in coal town – Dhanbad. His visits back home were infrequent and he was never with his albums on the rare occasions that we did see him. I don’t recall our family ever making a trip to Dhanbad. Whenever the subject of pictures came up we were told that pictures existed and that my uncle had them all.

So my brother and I had always been very curious about how our Mom looked as a kid, who were the people she had been photographed with, what unique expressions characterized her childhood.

My uncle, who had been so distant to us and to the rest of his family over all these years, is closer to us now in this era of super connectivity through social networking. We still never get to see him but we chat with him often and he is now scanning some of the pictures from his collection and emailing them to us. The first picture to have arrived in our mailboxes the other day was this one:

Photobucket

When my brother first saw it I was told he said, “I’ve waited 39 years to see this picture!” He started waiting for it the year he was born. I am a couple of years older but I really have been waiting that long to see it.

To other readers of this blog this would just appear like a faded picture from a stranger’s past but when I first saw it a few weeks ago I couldn’t stop staring at it. Even after these past few weeks my fascination with it hasn’t waned. I click it open once every day, just to take another look. I am not sure why it holds my interest to such an inexplicable degree. Perhaps it’s the uncanny resemblance between my Mom at that age and my daughter now…the style of her dress, the headband in her hair. Perhaps I am surprised at my oldest uncle sporting sunglasses; an image of him that I can’t reconcile with how he looks now. My archivist uncle is standing in the middle. My grandma, in whose expression I see glimpses of my own, is holding her fourth surviving child (her seventh – she had five others after him) – a late and favorite uncle who grew up to be an artist, a musician, a sculptor …someone who burnt bright before he left us all in 1986.

But it’s my Mom who holds my interest the most. She looks exactly like her granddaughter would look sixty years from the time when she posed for that photograph when she couldn’t even imagine that one day she would be a much adored grandma.

I look at the picture and I think about the things that could have been going through her mind. I wonder if she had a similar relationship to her mom that I’ve had with her and that my daughter has with me. My grandma’s attentions had to have been divided between four young kids at that time. Did she have time to pamper my Mom as a five year old should be? Or is pampering an invention of our time?

I also can’t help thinking, had I seen this picture when I was a child I would have thought of it as unbelievably ancient. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, the 40s felt too distant to contemplate; heck it was “pre-Independence”! Now, when I look at this picture I feel as though this wasn’t so long ago…as if the passage of time is a meaningless construct of the mind.

Anoushka, at seven, thinks about the things that happened to her when she was four or five and says,”Mommy, that was such a long time ago!” I am always momentarily stunned when she says that because that was only three years away for me. I moved to the US twenty one years ago. It’s as though I blinked and lost twenty one years in the process. So the photograph above is only three or so blinks away, by the “blink” standard I’ve devised today.

What was it like for my Mom when I was seven? Or for that matter when I was seventeen or twenty seven? Did she wonder about the passage of time? Through all those years I was nothing if not entirely self-absorbed. Most of my thoughts were about me, the selfishness was perhaps natural for that age but deplorable in retrospect. I can’t say I’ve changed much now but I am certainly trying.

Today I wonder what it was like for my Mom to be my mother over those years, did she sacrifice her dreams and passions to feed the monster that was our selfishness as kids? What did she think about when she wasn’t thinking about me or my brother or my Dad? What was her inner world like; a world where she wasn’t Pragya or Samir’s Mom but herself, just herself?

I remember her enrolling for French classes at the Alliance Francaise in Delhi for a brief period. I liked it when she did that. I do remember feeling proud that she was doing that for herself. But it was a superficial thought, a fleeting one, after which I retreated into my world of schoolgirl anguishes, wants, needs etc.

I read an article about moms and daughters this morning, in The New Yorker. It made me think about an amusing incident from the day before when my Mom, who is well versed in email, Internet and social networking was suddenly stumped yesterday while chatting with me when I casually used the abbreviation “brb” with her. I had a visitor in my office and I needed to tell her that I would be right back (brb) but she was quite flummoxed at that. She typed, “What is brb?” before disappearing from chat. After my visitor left I had to call her back to tell her I wasn’t being rude and that brb simply meant “be right back”. It was fun to call her back and explain that bit of chatting jargon to her.

The article was about the emails Moms of a certain age send their grown up daughters and the daughters thinking how these missives were often amusing and “quaint”. It was an enjoyable read. But within this article was a mom quoted as saying:

“Children are always at the center of the parents’ universe and parents are always at the periphery”.

That quote certainly gave me some pause as I thought about the one-way street that parental love so often is. Parents of every generation end up at the periphery of their children’s lives. I can almost picture neverending concentric circles, from the beginning of time, with peripheries and centers constantly flowing out into each other, ad infinitum, underscoring with such undeniable certitude that our roles in life are nothing more than being transmitters of the human genetic code through time. All other concerns, anxieties, angst, plans, joys, sorrows are just fleeting images during our code-carrying lives.

As I think about these things I finally feel ready to add my bit to the mommy tag where I am required to write about the five things that I love about being a mother.

I had mentioned to Shankari that this was a tough tag in many ways because I doubt I have ever thought about the things I love about being a mother. When I look at my daughter I think about the things I love about having a daughter.

I suppose the selfishness and self-absorption that I talked about earlier in this long ramble hasn’t quite left me yet. Within me there is still this desire to be at the center of my own universe as well as hers. I am still very resistant to the idea of accepting with grace that no matter how it seems during these early days of my daughter’s childhood, there will come a time when her world will not revolve around me, when she won’t need me as much and there would be times when she wouldn’t even want me around.

But what I love about being a mother and having a daughter at this point in time is that I am learning to share my central spot, in my own universe, with my daughter. She is slowly but surely bumping me to the edges of my existence, but I am enjoying the gentle bumps and am still very much in the center. I like sharing that spot with her, I love not being alone in this spot.

I love the finesse with which she manages to strip away from me my creeping cynicism, with one twinkling look in her eye.

I love to watch her sleep; I can stare at her for hours on end without any desire to tear my gaze away from her. She enchants me and leaves me at a loss for words to describe how I feel about her and when I am so lost for words the meaning of ‘love’ finally becomes clear to me. This vast feeling of ever expanding joy and fullness that I feel when she falls asleep in my arms of drapes her arms and legs all around me as she sleeps.

My heart breaks at the slightest thing that makes her cry. She shed anguished tears last night when her pollen allergies made her eyes itch and burn and when she couldn’t sleep at night because her nose was blocked. Tears were streaming down her face as she told me how much she hated the allergy season. These were tears of frustration at minor discomfort, not extreme sadness. But they wrenched my heart and all I could think about was getting her to smile again. In that instant I wasn’t thinking about myself at all. She was my only thought, my only concern, her immediate comfort my only goal. I love the fact that she can bring out that side of me, she makes me feel human, grounded, capable of providing comfort, care and hope.

I think about my own asthma attacks as a kid and how panicked my Mom used to be. My Mom also tells stories of the time when she was ill as a child. She says she was weakened by illness and her parents used to keep watch at night, all night to make sure she was still breathing. She was the first surviving daughter after three who hadn’t made it.

I love being a Mom because my daughter puts me in touch with the part of me that’s good and wholesome, the part that’s not on an endless quest for illusory satiation.

And that very long ramble, my friends, is what I have been thinking about for the last few days.

The Return

I do love my blog, just as one loves ones home. I feel bad about having neglected it for over a month. I have run my fingers along dusty surfaces and visited all the places I like to visit…the blogs I link to the sites I like. I found it weirdly comforting to see that I wasn’t the only one who was showing signs of unshakable lethargy. Some others hadn’t updated their blogs in weeks!

Perhaps we all got sucked into a vacuum; maybe we were all just floating around like space debris. For the last two months I had no insights and no blips of inspiration. I was lifting the state of feeling uninspired to high art.

I am still not inspired, still not able to come up with a coherent bit of writing that might engage my sparse audience for a few moments but I do sense some of the greyness lifting. It is a new year after all, time to shake off whatever it was that kept me running in slow motion and getting nowhere.

The missing time has been eventful. We suddenly decided that a trip to San Francisco was what we needed. The tickets were purchased the day after the impulse became reality and we flew west the next day.

Our very gracious host was a schoolmate who I met on Facebook after 26 years. He picked us up at the airport and we spent the next six days at his very impressive home and his wonderful wife, kids and dogs. This was the first time that a vacation felt like a real vacation; no worries plaguing us, good company, great food and lots of warmth and hospitality. We also met my friend’s neighbors whose warmth and friendliness so pleasantly surprised our frozen east coast hearts. They all treated us as if they had known us for the longest time.

Here are some pictures:

We’re waiting to get off the plane after a long flight, ready for sunny California after a cold and dreary New York winter.

Pensive as I wonder what makes a Hello Kitty camera work …or not!

We tried to be hardy New Yorkers, unaffected by the San Francisco winter, fifty-two degrees, c’mon, that’s like a sauna, no? But really it was quite cold, we should have layered up better on this trip to the famous Muir Woods.

Sometimes teenagers don’t pick up their phones when their Mom and Dad (our worried hosts calling the teen who preferred staying home to a millionth trip to Muir Woods) but a stranger they’ve just met (me) has better luck!

This was a trip to the Robert Mondavi winery at Napa Valley. You see no pictures inside the winery because short, under 13 people aren’t allowed inside! What if their parents made them taste the wine, God forbid! So no, we just walked around outside even though I have always been curious to see what happens to grapes en route to the fancy bottles.

See the grapevines in the back?

Apparently an itsy-bitsy spider went up Telegraph Hill!

The lovely Anoushka!

New Year’s Eve was an exciting reunion of four FAPSians (people who went to the Frank Anthony Public School in New Delhi and graduated in an Orwellian year). The joy one gets from being reunited with people with a shared history and shared memories is immense, I feel. From the left we see Roshni and Sunit, Mohit and Priya (our wonderful hosts), Raj and Rita and Anil and me.

Here’s Raj taking over Priya’s kitchen and dazzling us with his incredible masala chai making skills.

Here are the two pink Anoushkas, the same age, the same favorite colors, both with parents who attended FAPS!

Anoushka with Mohit’s labs – Sam and Frodo. She fell in love with them.

And here I am leaning and hanging at the mysteriously leaning shack at the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, CA

The Mystery Spot was our last stop of the California vacation. We plane hopped our way back to New York and New Jersey last night. The weather is supposed to be cold but sunny for the next three days and then they are calling for another cold front and another ice storm. Wish I was anywhere but here.

But I feel energized, some of the gloom has lifted. A big thanks to Mohit and Priya for making it possible.

Kona Kona Kaun Kona?

The main character in the book I am reading at the moment is often preoccupied with trying to do the one thing, at any given moment, that he believes no one else would be doing at the same time. Such preoccupations can be somewhat addictive. For instance, I am probably the only one sitting on my computer on a Tuesday afternoon writing about doing things that no one else is likely to be doing at this time. We could loop around this ad infinitum.

However, it was stunning to me to key in a random search in Google that said, “Kona Kona Kaun Kona” and find a blog post where the writer was reminiscing about this popular childhood game (where I grew up); what are the chances? I am sure none of my peers have any knowledge or memory of this game!

I was doing this search because I have fond memories of it. “Kona Kona Kaun Kona” roughly translates as, “Pick your corner”. As far as I can remember, it took 5 kids to play the game; one in each corner and one in the middle. The one in the middle was the one who was asked to pick a corner…I don’t remember the rest of it… or what the goal of the game was… just remember having a lot of fun playing it with friends and cousins. I think the reason why I remember it well is because at a very early age I used it as an analogy to make a point to my parents.

During a round of general familial bantering and kidding around I think I was being told that if my older brother had survived then I might not have been around, or something of the sort, and my answer was that there was no way I wouldn’t have been around in this family because before I was born God played the “Kona Kona…” game with me and that I had pointed toward my parents and picked this particular corner. I still remember making that statement even though I couldn’t have been much older than 5 or 6, I think.

The thought floated into my brain as a stray fragment today in the context of permanence and loss and a discussion about ones roots, the connections and associations aren’t all very clear to me but there’s a chance that a theme or an unbroken chain of thought may emerge if I wrote it all down.

I called up a friend yesterday, after a very long time, and in doing so realized how much I had missed him. We had a long conversation where we touched upon the connections we had built over the last few years; we built a community and a cherished circle of friends. A bunch of us came together to share in some laughter, some fun and we bonded in several ways.

I see that changing now, there are distances creeping in, people are drifting apart and turning away, highlighting for me the impermanence of things. I picture a deserted street with tumbleweed drifting in the wind and I think of the old song that talked about the caravan having passed, leaving nothing but dust and rubble behind. And I want to resist this with all my heart. I like keeping my friends around me; if there’s anything that leaves me sad and despairing beyond consolation it’s the thought of losing friends and never seeing them or speaking to them again. The concept of naturally drifting apart just isn’t natural enough for me and I refuse to entertain the idea that “it happens”.

I believe that every life that touched mine in some way, every connection I ever made, with anyone, was a result of playing the “pick your corner” game with God. And having picked these corners I want to stay, I want permanence and I want roots.

The idea of drifting in general and drifting apart, in particular, is losing its charm for me. Isn’t drifting apart like death in many ways? Once people drift away one is left with nothing but memories, as is the case when a loved one dies, they’re still alive in ones memories. So why die before death? Why drift apart? Why not make every effort to stay in touch and remind each other, every once in awhile, that we are very much around and in the same plane, if a relationship ever meant something? Childish questions, I know. But my brain thinks them all the same.

I amuse myself by the direction in which my thoughts wander of their own volition…thinking about death and memories…then finding myself wondering about the myth (or reality?) of an elephant graveyard, their fascination with the remains of the ones who passed away; how they carry around the tusks and bones of the dead, ostensibly mourning the dead. But unless they banish someone from the herd I imagine elephant communities stay together all their lives; a wandering and lonely elephant sans herd is usually a dangerous one!

So, in drifting…is there a way to drift back to where one was happiest…to the corners one picked, or are we doomed to the same fate as an ever expanding universe?

"Shrinking" Moon

Sleep was kept at bay last night as the waning gibbous moon traversed the distance between one end of the transom over my window and the other. I stared at it, hypnotized. It was a thing of beauty. It drew my attention and seemed to say it won’t be ignored. So I didn’t ignore it. I watched, entranced, keeping the reality of the hour from intruding upon this hypnotic state. But it did. Reality is persistent that way. That’s not to say that the moon is any less real but it certainly is irrelevant in the context of wide awake reality.

I spend my days running from pillar to post. I am scattered, I am alone. My eyes stare at the moon, my thoughts travel to Patna, Bhagalpur, Sabour, Delhi for no reason. Or a reason that escapes me at this hour of the night. These thoughts are tied up with my parents being in their early thirties and my six year old self. There was stability, there was a structure. In my recollections they strike me as being more mature and mentally settled at an earlier age. My Mom was always around, my Dad was around, their needs always running secondary to ours. My Mom, constantly worried about the water bottles and tiffin boxes I lost out of sheer absent-mindedness. I didn’t appreciate the close scrutiny back then, in retrospect I do. My daughter loses things every day, I laugh derisively at the moms who are seen questioning their sons and daughters about lost mittens, lost hats, lost pencil sharpeners and misplaced crayons; the smirky voice inside my head asking what is wrong with these mothers and why they agonize over such little things. And then there’s a night like last night, when the moon became an inquisitor or a silent therapist asking, “Why? And how does that make you feel?” And realization dawned that those mothers worry about little things because mothers need to worry about little things like that. There cannot be any approximation when it comes to child-rearing, the devil needs to be found and vanquished in all the little details. A thought that would just as easily vanish in the light of the day.

But in that moment I reminisced about a steady-as-she-goes childhood, about parents who always seemed to know what they were doing, a home that was never a mess, visiting relatives, family outings, eternal sunshine.

I can only dream of providing such an environment for my child: a dream where we’re all together, waking up after sunrise, eating breakfast at the dining table -before leaving home, getting back at an earthly hour, turning in after a dinner-like dinner. A dream that is never going to show any signs of turning into reality as I continue living my life running from pillar to post and yearning for that glorious moment of the day, rather night, when I can unwind, when the moon’s out, A’s sleeping, F is sleeping, R is sleeping, A has already made the token call from VA and no one needs me anymore for anything, no demands, no deliverables for the remaining hours of the night. And that is why sleep is kept at bay. Sleep is just the bridge that would deliver me to the next icy cold day where no amount of bundling up helps and there isn’t any time to do anything other than sustain constant motion. I didn’t want to get on that bridge last night. Not until reality intruded in all its severity and forced my eyelids shut.

Land

Bettiah, a dot on the map of Eastern India, in the heart of Champaran – the land of indigo farmers – where Gandhi started his fight for an independent India in 1919. My grandfather was a part of Gandhi’s movement. Someone who was repeatedly jailed for his resistance to the British and suffered many a lathi charge at their hands.

My Dad grew up here, he is proud of saying he had “basic education” here, then a new concept in schooling. He learnt how to weave his own cloth and didn’t wear anything but loom spun cloth – also known as khadi – until he went to college. All these stories of his growing up, in the acres upon acres of fertile, rice-growing land owned by his family, in and out of neighboring homes where everyone was a distant relative, drinking milk fresh from the cow, plucking and eating mangoes and lichis straight off the trees and owning a piece of land, that was so pleasantly known as the phulwari, they provide a sense of nostalgia for me (that’s if one is allowed to be nostalgic about things one hasn’t experienced first hand). This land came alive for me in these stories.

And they weren’t all just stories, I did visit during summer vacations from school. I remember riding in the front carriage of Khalil’s bike as he took me around the fields, the mango orchards and his home. I can still reconstruct our ancestral home from memory. It was a large house facing the community pond. There was a well on the left and a small cottage a few steps away where my grandfather’s younger brother – my granduncle – used to practice his yoga. As kids my cousins and I used to converge upon his cottage so he could give us the sugar candy we call misri.

I have fond memories of sleeping outside in the large courtyard that was surrounded by rooms on all sides, listening to someone telling a story or playing antakshari with my cousins. Some long-lasting impressions were made here.

1981 was probably the last time I visited. As a shallow teenager the ancestral home, its secret corners, hide and seek games of earlier youth had all ceased to fascinate. The heat, the dust, the mosquitoes and the severely curtailed freedoms of movement and attire that a growing girl faced in a place like Champaran had sucked all the fun out of these visits.

Twenty four years later I often think about my roots, my beginnings. We have a family tree that can be traced back to 12 generations or more, my roots go deep unlike most of my acquaintances in this country who often express a strong desire to retrace their roots and aren’t able to. But this knowledge, this realization – what if anything does it mean to me? I have a sense that I must value it but it doesn’t inspire anything other than occasional nostalgia. I feel a twinge of guilt that this may be even less meaningful to my daughter, unless she grows up to be a searcher, a seeker, who feels incomplete and has an intense desire to live and breathe the same air as her ancestors, even for a short period of time. It could happen, she might want to strap on a backpack and say – Mom, I want to visit Champaran – I might even let her go, despite being worried sick, more about a disappointment I sense she may feel than about her safety; the latter being something that’s a given.

I sense she may be disappointed because things have changed. My parents went back home for the first time in several years this year. They had intended to spend a couple of weeks there but were back in 5 days. The mosquitoes and the general discomfort only on the fringes of the major disappointment at a villager squatting on a broken cot in the corner of the courtyard with his goats tethered nearby. This was the flourishing stronghold of our very large and extended family. This is where my grandmother reigned supreme all those years ago; servants, visitors, vendors were in and out all day and now there was a lonely man and his goats! The walls were crumbling, the roof was leaking and sadness reigned supreme. What will things be like when the backpacking bug is upon Anoushka?

We deserted our hometown, we haven’t the slightest connection to it now and it isn’t something that happened with my generation. Dad tells a story of when he first went home after returning from the US, PhD degree in hand. He was conversing with a woman who had attended to him when he was a baby, his nursemaid perhaps. She had lovingly asked if he was coming back for good and my Dad had suggested there was nothing to return to, there were no prospects. Several years down the line, my Dad was older and I was old enough to appreciate things more deeply, I was stunned to hear what he told me the woman had said to him when he had mentioned the lack of prospects, this unlettered woman who had never set foot outside the village, had said “Here my child, there’s land!” Of course the sentence loses a world of meaning in its translation from Bhojpuri. But there we have it – back to the roots – to land. What can one possibly lack when one has land? I often think of her remark. I don’t even know why I do, but I do all the same.

Speaking of land, and as an aside, is something that triggered the above; a highly detailed map that a friend shared with me when I told him my parents were in Bettiah last week. He pulled up a satellite mapping of the entire region. I had never known any geographical details about Bettiah, other than knowing it was in Bihar, in Champaran and close to the Indo-Nepal border. Here it is showcased in great detail with roads, neighboring cities, the whole lot! One can even see Motihari to the east of Bettiah – the birthplace of George Orwell. Have never had a clearer picture of the land of our ancestors. Perhaps Google Earth or other such technology will save us all the hassle of Anoushka expressing the desire (if she ever does) to actually go there! So much is increasingly possible, virtually!

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Introduction: Find the One Lie!

I was born in the late sixties in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA and for the first three months of my life lived in a tropical paradise. Unfortunately, my arrival was at the tail end of my parents’ five year long stay in this fiftieth state of America and from the tropics the small family of three ventured straight into the Tundras. The next two years of my life were spent in snowy Canada. I can’t really tell you much about the time spent there because, honestly, I don’t remember a thing. The pictures look good, with me in snowsuits, romping around, accepting the snow, relishing it. Far cry from the misery ice and snow now invoke! My pictures bear a striking resemblance to my Anoushka.

The Canada phase lasted two years after which my father, who hails from an extremely patriotic, freedom fighting family, felt the urge to return to the homeland. My parents were terrified of raising smelly, LSD’d flower children in North America and so we moved back to India via Europe. Once again, the pictures show that I had a wonderful time in Europe. My Mom tells me I picked up rocks on the Swiss Alps and having seen Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, imagined myself a moonwalker, proudly displaying my collection saying, “Look Mommy, Look Daddy – Moonwocks!”

I am told I displayed amazing poetic talent as well and my first composition celebrated the Niagara Falls region with the following words, “Green, green grass/blue, blue sky, looks nice, I rike it!” (I couldn’t say “l”). Alas, the muse fell asleep soon thereafter!

No moonwocks, or inspired poetry in Patna, Bihar, where we landed next. After Patna we went further into interior Bihar to a place called Sabour. It was a pleasant place, truly bucolic, with mango trees and flower gardens surrounding our government quarters. My Dad got an award for growing the biggest tomato there, I still remember walking up the stage to receive his award for him.

But this is when the music changes, these were the years when I slowly learnt how to be fearful of all my teachers and shy around all fellow students. The sisters at Mt Carmel Convent School had a tendency to smack the kids with rulers and so I developed an interesting habit of never turning in my examination papers. I used to take the exam but then stuffed the papers into my satchel for Mom to discover after the report card showed mysterious absences, especially when she knew she had dropped me off in class. Those were some trying times for my parents. What can I say, the penguins terrified me!

Idyllic Sabour, where time stood still, was left behind in a quest for a better life and so began the New Delhi phase. My shyness and quirky student habits became more pronounced here, much aggravated by my extreme shyness and fear of teachers. I kept marking my own work with a red pencil, impersonating the teacher’s initials, confident in my seven year old forgery skills. I even sat on my bookcase for several months because my chair had been stolen by the class bully. My younger brother who used to spend his time in my classroom after his kindergarten hours went home making dire pronouncements one day, “Mommy, Didi doesn’t even have a chair in class, she sits on her bookcase!” Took quite sometime to shake off some of this irrational fear and even longer to shed the shyness.

The episode where I lost track of the rest of my Delhi School of Economics, Class of 1987 classmates, during a Jim Corbett park tour, and got hopelessly lost in the jungle, can be attributed to my extreme shyness. I branched away from the others thinking I wasn’t cool enough to stay with them and walked away to a point of no return in the middle of the jungle. Soon as I realized I was lost I started looking around and spotted elephant droppings. I decided to follow this trail back to safety until the ground shook beneath me and I turned to see an enraged wild elephant running toward me. I remember thinking “musth”, that must be “musth” and running like crazy! I kept running, stepping into soft warm heaps at various places, finally stepping behind a tree while the elephant ran ahead. I waited awhile, until I could breathe normally again and then continued along the fragrant trail, all the way back to safety and civilization covered from head to toe in prickly burrs and other stuff. There were a couple of friends who had missed me and were worried about me. How heartening that was!

That was the last memorable experience in India. I left the country in 1988, to reclaim my birthright of US citizenship.

I have been in the US for eighteen years. I met my husband Anil in the February of 1991 and married him on the American Independence Day, July 4th, 1991. Indian weddings are usually characterized by the groom and his family leading a procession (Baraat) to the bride’s home, where the marriage usually takes place, but in my topsy-turvy world I drove my rickety car, family within, as “Baraat” to Rochester, New York, where Anil and I tied the knot. We used the long holiday weekend for a brief honeymoon in Toronto and then it was back to work.

We’ve settled down now to a quiet life in New Jersey, Anil, Anoushka and I. We are wrapped up in our own lives for the most part until at night, before bedtime, the Internet opens up its virtual doors to a wonderful circle of friends and family the world over.

Fourth Grade

“Ok, repeat after me – Mayur-sa-rini”, said Sona Singh. My own personal trainer, a classmate who Mrs Husain had appointed my keeper. Mrs Husain had no faith in my ability to learn English or Math or anything! Little did she know that I could read and write circles around Sona Singh! But I was a timorous soul. I gritted my teeth and repeated after Sona Singh –Mayur-sa-rini – as I died a little inside.

Fourth grade! The most nightmarish time of my life! I was seven then. Thirty years have gone by and the nightmare is as vivid as if I was only eight. I was new to Delhi. The hyper-activity, the cliques, the cruelty that my Delhi classmates inflicted on my seven year old person took me by such stunned surprise and shock that I don’t think I ever fully recovered. Perhaps it would have helped if I was nine years old like the others in my class, but I wasn’t. I found myself asking any sympathetic looking classmates questions like, “How do we draw a number line? How do we draw a Venn diagram?” They never helped me, they always laughed at me instead and cracked cruel jokes, mimicking my, “How do we..” any time they saw me approach.

I never raised my hand in class, never spoke, didn’t understand half the things that were being taught in Math and my personality underwent a sea change within two weeks of becoming a fourth grader at Frank Anthony Public School. I had no friends, I used to eat my lunch alone. I never turned in any homework or exam papers for fear of incurring Mrs Husain’s wrath in class and my parents disappointed anger at home. Math was my only problem but Mrs Husain thought I was below average in everything. The woman never once had a kind word for me. It was almost as if she wanted to further demoralize a kid who already was as low as she could possibly be.

I remember the time when I came into class and found my chair missing. It didn’t occur to me to simply drag another chair and sit down, as any other kid would have done, or to approach the dragon lady and tell her my problem. I was too beaten down to do anything and, resignedly, just sat on my tin attaché case that held my books, for at least fifteen days! My brother was my savior. He was in kindergarten then, in the same school. His classes used to be over at noon, after which he used to come and sit with me until my last period was over. We then used to go home together in the box rickshaw. He finally told my Mom, “Mummy! Didi doesn’t have a chair in class! She sits on her book box!” My Mom turned around from whatever she was doing and said, “WHAT?” I had never seen her more furious! She went to see Mrs Husain the next day and gave her a really angry piece of her mind, “How could you? Don’t you keep track of your students? Didn’t you notice she hasn’t had a chair for fifteen days? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?? I never would have known about this if my son hadn’t told me!” I was proud of my Mom then but also very scared because Mrs Husain was not going to let me forget this. She told my Mom, “She should have spoken up, she never said a word to me Mrs Mishra!” Then she bent down and tried to ask me, with feigned concern, “Why didn’t you say something child?” I just stared at her, scanning her frightening face as scared kids tend to do.
And sure enough she started to take it out on me. She started finding fault with everything. Ignoring me on the rare occasions that I did raise my hands to answer something. She never once gave me a pat on my back for my superb reading or spelling or writing skills. Instead she appointed Sona Singh and the real mean Tejinder Kaur as my guardians! She asked them to monitor all my homework and classwork in all subjects. She shamed me like no other seven year old has ever been shamed before. She made me the laughing stock of the class! She kept calling me to the blackboard during Math class, knowing full well I was completely lost. Never once did she try to help me or explain things to me.

I dreaded getting up in the morning to go to school. I hated the sight of the green blackboard, the smell of the corridors, the cigarette smell in the classroom from Mrs Husain’s chain smoking and my two “guardians” trying to teach me how to be a model student. I didn’t even have anyone to reach out to for complaints against bullies or kids who snatched my water bottle from me or tormented me in other ways. I used to hate eating my lunch alone, being so utterly friendless! And then there was Sarva Vellamuri who I considered a good friend but she ditched me mid-recess once, saying she didn’t want to spend it with me anymore. I remember sitting down on the bench, tear-filled eyes ready to overflow. But I didn’t want to be seen crying.

The nightmare was finally over with the final exams, which weren’t uneventful. My parents had bought me what we called a “pen-pencil” with which I intended to write my exams. But careless as I was, I dropped it, lost it during assembly. I had nothing with which to write. I went around begging for a pencil until Sarika Sharma, a real kind soul, gave me a little stump of a pencil. I wrote out all the answers and went home.

At home my Mom did a routine check of my things and asked me where my pen-pencil was. I told her I had lost it. She then asked me how I took the exams. I told her I borrowed a pencil. She knew I was too timid to ask anyone for anything and my parents didn’t believe I had taken the final exam for all of the fourteen days before the results came out. They fully expected me to fail and repeat fourth grade. Then the report cards came and I had managed to clear everything quite comfortably! The nightmare was finally over!

PS: I have met Sarva (on the net) and we’ve done 30 years of catching up via emails. What a way to find someone! By mentioning them in a blog account! She still seems like the good, stron-willed person I always thought she was. And the sad incident of my pitiful childhood can finally recede from the recesses of my brain.

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