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Home is where the trees are

I am in deep mourning. I am grieving for all the beautiful, strong, not so strong trees we have lost as Cyclone Fani ravaged Odisha few days back.

I have grown up with trees. I have hugged them in moments of happiness. I have leaned against them in times of sadness. Sometimes I have taken their presence for granted. My most beautiful growing up memory is all about waking up in the morning and sitting quietly on the verandah of our then house (I have lived in different parts of Odisha) and just soaking in the ethereal beauty of swaying coconut trees, watching tiny birds jumping from one branch of the mango tree to another.

There are no gentler souls in this world than the trees. They give shelter even to those who come to brutally hack them from the roots.

Even as I grieve deeply, I hope we will soon plant more trees in Odisha and love them more deeply and pray for their longer life.

In their existence lies our future. For trees are life.

(This banyan tree belongs to the soil of Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital. I was mesmerized by its richness of life. Being with this tree felt like being with my ancestors… the sense of its history warmed the cockles of my heart. How can we become this large in our hearts? )   

PHOTOS : YOURS TRULY

 

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One way ticket…

(‘Desh’ (meaning country) is how my mother-in-law refers to Kerala whenever she talks about her years of growing up there. I always tell her, “India is your country. Why are you referring Kerala as your country?” But she refuses to listen to me. She shifted to Gujarat when she got married almost 50 years ago. This piece first appeared in an anthology titled ‘People called Ahmedabad’. I am sharing this here as we celebrate Gujarat Day on May 1. This is about leaving home, finding home and also about love and longing)  

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(The Matriarch… )

More than fifty years ago, Sowbhagyabati Menon arrived in Ahmedabad from a small village in Kerala as a young bride. She started a whole new chapter of her life in this dusty city which is so very different from the lush green village of hers dotted with beautiful houses, swaying coconut trees and paddy fields. Today, she starts her day with a cup of tea and two Gujarati newspapers. And she loves her eclectic mixed neighborhood of Khanpur, in the walled city of Ahmedabad.

She looks back at her Gujarat journey with a sense of nostalgia and fondness. “It was my first train journey and everybody in my family thought that I was really going away too far. We all had heard of Ahmedabad only through news.The first house I stayed in Ahmedabad was on rent. It was a small house but I was surrounded by wonderful neighbors who wholeheartedly welcomed this young Malayali.”

Gujarati language sounded more or less like Greek or Latin to her. But she was hell-bent on learning the language. So, she sought the help of her neighbour’s school-going daughter. With a paper and pen, they moved around in the kitchen to note down the names of vegetables in Gujarati. Later on in the day whenever she found some free time, she diligently practiced on her own, saying it gently and slowly, “bataka (potato), dungri (onions).”

In Kerala, she was used to having boiled rice and in the initial days of her arrival here, she just couldn’t stand the smell of basmati rice in her friends’ houses. In the beginning, she stayed with her Gujarati friend for a couple of days. Her loving hosts were feeling miserable that their guest just refused to touch any of the Guajrati delicacies they offered to her. Then one day, her host friend went to a small south-Indian restaurant to pack a meal of masala dosa, idli, vada for her.Probably that South-Indian platter was more precious to her than any piece of gold jewellery she was wearing.

But she has come a long way since then. Today, she loves her share of thepla, methi gota, sukhdi, khichdi, poori-aam ras and undhiyu. In fact, her children and grand-children now especially ask her to make Gujarati khatti meethi dal and every Uttarayan, she gets up at 3 am in the night to prepare lip-smacking unidhiyu. From her kitchen now comes a regular spread of both Kerala and Gujarati cuisine.  

She loves being in Ahmedabad which has given her a home, friends and beautiful memories to go back to. With a sense of love, she says, “Gujratis are nice,warm people. They are affable and made me feel at home from the beginning.”

So, what has she enjoyed the most about her life in Ahmedabad? She says, “I feel a sense of freedom in Ahmedabad. Here, I move around freely with my friends, have gone for late night movies. There is no restrictions on movement like I had in Kerala and I have enjoyed the freedom to explore life. My neighbours have taught me the art of saving money. They have taught me the art of compounding interest. So, that has definitely made my life better now.”

“I have also enjoyed celebrating festivals like Diwali, Uttarayan, Navratri and Bestu Varash (Gujarati New year).  And yes, I was a true blood Malayali before, having my share of cooking in coconut oil. After more than four decades in Gujarat, I have lost my taste for coconut oil.”

Does she miss Kerala? “Oh, I miss Kerala’s magical monsoon. Even after so many years, Gujarat’s dry, arid long summer feels really tough. In these months, I long for Kerala’s rains. I also miss the fabulous celebrations of Onam in my village. Though I try to cook an elaborate sadhya on Onam but it just doesn’t feel the same.”

But then she trails, “Many of the people with whom I grew up in Kerala are gone now. The ancestral house of mine needs constant attention. Life in Ahmedabad feels much easier now. And did I mention about the uninterrupted power supply in Ahmedabad?”

Well, home is here only.

Humility

Last November, I got my flat renovated (I don’t live there.)  It was humbling to see carpenters, paintmen dirtying their hands, sweating it out to make a house beautiful in which they will never live.
Most of them are migrants from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Before they gave me the keys back, I went to my flat to treat them to chai, nasta (tea and snacks). It was my way to to express gratitude and say ‘Thank You.’  I have always admired people who create things or change things using their hands. It could be anything from cooking, gardening, pottery to stitching.
Seeing them sitting together and enjoying their share of tea and samosa was deeply moving. They all have families who live in far flung areas. They all are living alone in this dusty dry Ahmedabad — carving a life far from the land and people they call their own.  They are here to earn money so that their children can live better. They kept on asking me, “Didi, are you happy with our work?” All of them —one by one. It was truly humbling.
It is the rich and privileged who always carry that sense of arrogance about everything they offer/ give. Rarely taking a pause and asking “Are you happy with what we are offering/doing?”
And very few of them create things with their own hand.

For the daughters… I never gave birth to

(I have many daughters across cities, continents without giving birth to one. You don’t have to be a biological mother to share love, warmth, knowledge and kindness. On International Women’s Day, I am sharing a note I wrote to Simrita, my niece who turned 18 on February 15, 2019. She is as precious to my heart as many young girls finding their way in this world. This note is personal yet universal. Like love. So, here it goes.)  

Hi Simsi,

You are 18 today. If we were together today, i would have cooked a delicious meal of chicken curry and rice for you. Or probably would have taken you out for a coffee and walnut brownie treat. Or probably we could have talked and laughed over some silly jokes. Between you and I, we have so many years separating us yet connecting us in strange, warm way. As you are far away, I thought of sharing what my lived experiences and years of talking to talented, creative personalities from different fields (as a journalist) have taught me. I know, you will have your own list too. Some time I would love to learn from your list too and add more to my life.
*In spite of not so knowledgeable people leading many countries across the globe,   knowledge rocks. It’s cool to know about world affairs, science, literature, films, music. There’s no limit to knowledge.
* Health is wealth. No arguments or second thoughts on this.
* Aah, it’s so necessary to say NO when you feel like saying NO from within. If your heart says NO, be firm and say it. Standing up to what you believe is cool. People will respect you eventually.
* Cooking and driving are life skills (well, AI is yet to invade our lives completely). Let us not attach ‘gender roles’ to these skills. I am really happy that you are doing both. I can’t drive and still regret it though many people on the streets are happy and alive because of this lack of skill of mine.
* Money is an enabler, so it’s important. Earning money is important and investing money is more important. .
* Being surrounded by people/friends/mentors/family members from whom you learn something or other is very important.
* Lipstick and nail polish can be a mood elevator on some bad days. So, go for it.
* Develop your own signature fashion statement so that years down people will look at something and say “Wow.. that’s Simrita.” They will remember your style. It could be anything but your style should reflect your personality. Brands no matter how big don’t create personalities. Your own signature style does.
* Empathy always works. So also gentleness.
* Giving is as important as receiving. And vice-versa.
* Networking is a good word. Nurture your contacts.
* Stay crazy. Stay curious.
* Be punctual. Respect other people’s time as you would respect your own time. Amitabh Bachchan always arrives on time for an interview (speaking from my own experience of interviewing him). He can afford to come late being AB but he sticks to time.  .
* Goofing up sometimes is fine.
* So also being vulnerable is fine.
* Enjoy your tea/coffee slowly sometimes. Don’t always rush.
* Think of a  larger universe than your immediate one.
Enjoy life.
P S: How about savoring this strawberry cake? (Our gracious male colleagues got this for us at work today.)

 

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Why do lovers fight?

I often wonder why do lovers fight? Even when there’s no reason.

I think, now I have an answer. They fight without reason, they sulk for days because it feels intimate. It feels nice to know that the heart is old but not cold. That piercing feeling  in the heart is still there making living meaningful in times of instant love and noodle.  A strange sense of belonging when you are talking but not in your usual way.

In your heart, you know there’s no threat to your relationship. You have come too far. You have experienced vagaries of life together. Joy, sorrow, smiles, tears, sharing a meal from the same plate, going hungry because you are missing the other one. All in the canvas called love, life.

In between silences, sighs, uttering few words of comfort, he asks, “Why are you doing this? So much of time is gone in the few days. Don’t do this.”

She answers, “What’s time in the end? It’s 25 years since we know each other. You are my time. ”

Suddenly the heart felt warm.

And she knows ‘naraz’ is her favourite word in Hindi. It’s so difficult to translate this word in English.

 

Saris and an almirah

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(Tonight is the first day of Navratri.  I started my day on a beautiful note by wearing my mother’s this crisp, beautiful ikkat sari. I feel a deep sense of love and happiness when I wear my mother’s sari.)

Every time I look at my wardrobe before going for a special evening, my standard dialogue is “I have nothing to wear.” I stand in front of my almirah with hands on my waist, look at it closely and shuffle through the items and repeat the same line again and again almost like a faulty gramophone. It can’t be more contradictory because the shelves in my cup board are choc-a-bloc with clothes of different designs, colours and textures and handbags collected from different places. Yet I end up complaining that I have nothing.
Even as I write this, my mind goes back to my mother’s Godrej almirah. The almirah was/is always sparkingly  clean. Not a single sari could ever be found in a crumpled state. The locker was in the middle and unlike the new-age cupboards available in the market now, the length of the locker was the same as the other shelves. The locker had my mother’s saris meant for special occasions. She called them ‘bahar ka sari’ (meaning the ones you wear when you go for a wedding, for an engagement ceremony, for a musical/dance performance or to pay a visit to a relative living in a different town). During my early childhood, I clearly remember there were exactly nine saris in this ‘bahar ka category.’ This collection also included her two wedding saris and she kept mothballs to keep the insects away and for that ‘fresh’ smell.
I have always seen my mother wearing only saris. Well, I find nothing extraordinary about it though today if I wear a sari and come to my office, colleagues keep on asking me, “what’s the special occasion.. birthday ya marriage anniversary?” “Nothing”, I say with a straight face. Pat comes the reply, “Come on, it can’t be true. It got to be some special occasion for you to wear a sari.” The best (sic) comment came from a senior male colleague when he saw me wearing a beautiful hand woven ikkat sari, “oh…today MTV has become Doordarshan.” Well, my mother had been wearing saris everyday with no special occasion attached to the day.
Her other shelves included cotton saris meant to be worn at home only. The saris were always perfectly ironed, neatly stacked up in a clean vertical line. There was a different shelf for her blouses and petticoats. And it’s not just about a wardrobe or her saris. It’s also about memories tucked away comfortably lovingly in her wardrobe. Her aging and slightly yellowing black and white wedding  photographs, letters written by me and my sisters, letters from my dad when he was away from her on work and cards sent to her on different birthdays of hers over the years, special Durgapuja edition of literary magazines, medals won by us for essay-writing or for being the best girl of the school—- the wardrobe has it all. The almirah also has her gold jewellery and no matter how much we persuaded she had resisted for long all talks about opening a bank locker for storing her jewellery. It was her complete world which was so very intimate to her and to her children and in the end she could just lock it up and sleep peacefully.
One of our favourite leisure activities was to tell her to open the almirah and then all of us would lie on the bed together to have close intimate awestruck look at her world. Every time I went back home during vacations, I loved sitting in front of my mom’s almirah and looking at her new additions and reveling in the old treasures which are my memory now.   Every sari has a story of its own. Every ‘vanity bag’ of hers has a tale to tell. The stories never got boring or repetitive. And her locker had many many more saris bought by her daughters from different places of India. To be fair, my dad also had a major contribution in adding vibrant colours and hues and of course numbers  to her nine-yard collection.
And now we have many  more wardobes and almirahs in our house. My sister definitely has a much larger collection of Baluchoris, Maheshwaris, Mysore silks and Banarasis. But the romance of intimacy lies in my mother’s almirah. Not in my sister’s.
And most importantly, times have changed. She left this world in 2013. But the almirah is still at the same place where it has been for years now. I have now some of her saris in my wardrobe. And these saris are my rich possessions. I carry forward the legacy of India’s rich textile heritage.  And every time I wear my mother’s sari and walk, I feel as if she’s walking with me.
But most importantly, unlike me I have never seen my mother standing in front of her almirah and telling “I have nothing to wear.” One day when she was fighting against cancer, I had asked her about those days of ‘nine bahar ka sari’ days and she said “It’s essential to be happy with what you have.”

(A longer version of this piece was published in Chicken Soup for the Indian Mother’s Soul)

 

 

Rains

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Every summer, I read Alexander Frater’s wonderful book titled Chasing the Monsoon. Through the pages of the book, I make a desperate attempt to soak in the anticipation of arrival of rains. My fantasy becomes my escape route. I curl up with the memories of my growing up years in Orissa. Nothing can match the magic of watching the evening rains lashing against a lamp post.  There’s  something deeply evocative about Orissa’s magical monsoon.

I now live in Gujarat. It has been raining incessantly in Ahmedabad for almost ten days. I no longer enjoy the rains. The thought of struggling to reach office on a rainy day depresses me.  The roads are full of potholes. In some parts of the city, the roads can’t even be called roads. The infrastructure around us collapses in no time. Looking at the pouring rains gives me a sense of uncertainty, fear.

But some loves don’t die so quickly. They always find little alleys to pop up again. Like a dancing sunflower. So, on some days when it’s raining heavily, I just listen to Elton John’s Sacrifice or Scorpion’s Always Somewhere and I feel I am in another beautiful world. There is intense beauty in melancholy too. My heart fills up with a joy that can not be described in words.

Rains also make me realize that you can never go back to the home you left behind.