mom of all trades

mom of all trades

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Ordinary magic

Magic: (noun) the use of special powers to make things happen that would usually be impossible, Cambridge English dictionary

I was privy to some ordinary magic yesterday.

I saw a band of men, who have chosen to live away from their loved ones, so that we may bask in the warmth and security of our family. Family for them is a bundle of letters, bursting at the seam, with words weighed down by unexpressed emotions, smudged at the edges by hastily wiped away tears. It is a photograph, dog eared from constant touching, of a little baby girl, with eyes just like her mother, he assures his buddies. It is the voice of a mother, heard after weeks, slightly cracked and husky in the effort to hold back her tears; she is making a fresh batch of his favorite pickle she tells him, to take back with him. Yes, enough to share with his buddies too. It is the shaky image of a new bride, who appears like a dream on his phone when the network is good. Later, he would wonder if he really did see that deep dimple that darted down her left cheek, when she smiled coyly at the camera or was that a figment of his imagination.

 Now, as they lie in their caskets, cocooned in the tricolor, I see no shrouds of caste or sheaths of creed or the state from which they hail. I see Indian soldiers whose lives were nothing short of ordinary magic. Delicate magic swathed in layers of the mundane, so thick that you may have to scratch at the crusts of quotidian discipline and rigorous routines. A group of men who stay awake in conditions glacial enough to freeze your very soul, so that we may sleep, lulled by the comfort this security offers. A sense of security that that is so taken for granted, that we rarely notice it, much like our breathing.

I was privy to some ordinary magic yesterday

I saw a little girl all of eleven years, standing before her martyred father’s remains. I saw her little hand shake, as she struggled to raise it in a final salute. I watched her choke back tears as she shouted out the old battle cry of her father’s regiment, her voice splintering into tiny shards yet never once breaking the tempo.
If this isn’t magic, then what is? The magic of the indestructible human spirit and courage. The purest form of courage as we all know is not the absence of fear but the will to do the right thing, in spite of the fear.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

These poignant lines from Leonard Cohen’s famous song, ‘Anthem’ holds a special significance in these troubled times.

They remind us to have the courage to make contributions of our own, however small or trivial they might seem. After all it is the little drops that make up the mightiest of oceans. One more way for the light to come in.

Let us notice these acts of ordinary magic happening around us and strive to pool in little offerings of our own; a sort of potluck of small, imperfect, courageous deeds.
Let us honor these heroes by becoming worthy of being defended by them.

Jai Hind!

Image source:

Monday, March 5, 2018

The language of colour

Mallikamma, came to me one afternoon, when the monsoon clouds darkened the skies, forcing upon it a late evening like quality; much like a lady, whose youthful looks have been jaded by a sudden illness.  I was looking at engaging someone younger, as a domestic help. I must have shown my surprise when she stated why she was there, for she took my hands in her rough, calloused hands and asked me to ‘try’ her for a week. Later, I would wonder what was it about her, which made me say ‘Yes’. Was it the look in her eyes, that spoke without hesitation what her mouth refused to say; that she desperately needed this job? Was it the way she smiled, eyes crinkling, with a touch of affection combined with a hint of mischief, suggesting that I needed her just as much?

“Colours have always spoken to me, from as long as I remember and I have always loved them,” she remarks, fingering the pile of clothes that she is helping me put away. “… probably because my life has been devoid of them; even the flower I’m named after, Mallika (jasmine) is leached of all colour” she continues, talking more to herself than me. “I should not have been taken in by the honeyed whisperings of the crimson silk sari, the colour of ripe pomegranates, with enchanting zari lines running across it. It was what my aunt and mother tempted me with, to get married at 13.” Seeing my shocked expression, she added, “there were gold jhumkas and silver anklets too”, conveying to me that she was powerless, against the lure of such temptations.

We become good friends, she and I, laughing at my terrible Tamil and her incorrigible Malayalam. She tells me little snippets from her life now and then, without any self-pity or malice, for life hasn’t been kind to her, but stating them simply as facts, as if it could have happened to anybody. Married at 13 and widowed at 19 with four daughters, her life had morphed into a race for survival before she was even out of her teens. “The day my husband died, he took with him my right to live. I was expected to merely exist. They took away my saris, my one indulgence. Deep coloured ones -aubergine purple with pale gold bhuttas, sunset orange, parrot green, red, the colour of freshly applied sindoor.  I can close my eyes and picture them; they were the colours of my ephemeral youth. My pretty silver anklets and jewellery were replaced by a pale saree, the colour of watery bile. I mourned the death of my youth, as well as my husband for a week and then I put away my grief, along with my colourful clothes and accessories, like winter clothes are packed away in boxes at the beginning of summer and embarked upon the long journey of survival, for the sake of my daughters.”
“For the past 30 years, I have worked until the skin peeled off my back, to educate my daughters and ensure that they all have jobs and are financially independent before getting them married. My spirit has been crushed many, many times; the death of my beloved daughter whose children I’m now raising, being thrown out of my husband’s home and being left penniless, battling illness, I’ve seen it all. But life must go on; we must rise each time and will our spirit to rise again, like a phoenix. Now I have given myself the permission to live again, to be happy and not simply exist. I surround myself with colours and the tinkling reminder of my carefree youth” she hitched up her sari with a mischievous glint in her eyes, to reveal silver anklets which tinkled as she moved.

It was hard for me to believe that this woman who broke into fits of giggles for no reason and was one of the most cheerful people I know, had dealt with so much of grief and heartbreak and that she was bringing up and educating her grandkids singlehandedly. Maybe super heroes don’t always come with capes and masks, some come with colourful sarees, cheeky smiles and tinkling anklets.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Museum of memories

I stand in the room we used to call ‘poomukham’, fingering the smooth curves of the decorative tiles that fringe the borders of the room. It features an intricately carved bouquet, of what I have always thought of, as wildflowers and is believed to have been imported from faraway Germany. We have come to say goodbye to the house and wander amongst the multiple corridors and rooms one last time.  The house wears a resigned look, with its rooms stark and cleared of all furniture, like a widow, whose finery has been stripped off.  This ancestral mansion has housed generations of my family and its walls have seeped their laughter and tears, their dreams and sorrows; the very fabric of their being. As I walk around, I can almost hear snatches of conversation, peals of laughter. I can almost smell wafts of familiar scents and feel the nonexistent furniture, as though my senses are conspiring, to will the house, to come alive again.

‘Valliamma’ (my grandmother) is in her room, which is known as’machinteagam'. It truly is the heart of the home. She is sitting cross-legged, in the middle of her bed, engrossed in giving the final touches to her painting. She looks up and beckons to the young girl at the doorway, to come sit next to her. I run up to her and smother her in a tight embrace, inhaling her distinctive scent of scented medicinal oil with a heart note of Nivea cream and a base note of lavender talcum powder.
Her dove white, starched and ironed ‘mundu’ is smeared with a streak of bright red paint, like fresh blood spilt from a wound; an unfortunate after effect of my display of affection. When I meet her eyes, I’m startled to see amusement there, instead of reproach. I feel a surge of affection for this kind soul, who is ready to see the world through my eyes.
It is somebody’s birthday and the whole house is abuzz with activities, the mammoth kitchen is invaded with delicious smells, from the plethora of dishes being made for the all-important afternoon lunch or ‘sadhya’, in honour of the birthday person. The huge dining room is cleared of furniture and lined with reed mats. In the centre of the room is a small lit brass lamp, and a tiny banana leaf with a small serving of each of the delicacy prepared; an offering to the Gods. I close my eyes and breathe in that special aroma that arises when steaming hot rice is placed on a freshly cut and washed banana leaf, and a dollop of golden ghee is poured on it, followed by salted dal. I can almost hear the crunch of a puffed up ‘pappadam’, being smashed, powdered and mixed with rice.

There is an unholy cacophony arising from the enclosed pond, which has rough stone steps leading down to placid and emerald green water, with tiny fish which nibble on our toes when we dangle our feet in the cool water. We are being taught the basics of swimming, and we are screaming in horrified delight, as an indigenous floater made of dry coconuts and coconut coir ropes, holds our limp bodies afloat, as we thrash about violently in our attempts not to drown. Valliamma and my aunt are watching us from the steps and my aunt threatens us with dire consequences if we don’t come out that instant, to get our hair washed with the viscous shampoo, made of tender hibiscus leaves- ‘Thaali’  
The vast courtyards with its ancient trees, where generations of children have run barefoot, the terracotta tiles warming their tiny feet. The fruit trees laden with seasonal bounty;  green mangoes, tart green slices of which, smothered with a fiery mixture of chilli powder salt and oil, make us pucker up in delight, as flavours explode on our tongues. Golden ripe mangoes, sweet as ambrosia, which melts in our little mouths and delicate jamun pink and blushing, some surprisingly sour, as we bite into their tender flesh. Jackfruit, papaya, guava trees line the garden along with huge leafy banyans, which stand tall and majestic. Their thick bowers, forms tiny oasis of shade, on the scorching ground.  The ‘tulasi thara’, with its tiny crevice, where a tiny brass lamp is lit every evening, to acknowledge the twilight hour. The ancient ‘sarpakavu’, the abode of snakes, overgrown with dense foliage, a place shrouded in ancient folklore and mystery. Bits and pieces of the house stick themselves on to the collage of my memory.

A house is essentially brick and mortar and everything else that goes into its making, but it is also something else, much like how we are not just our physical body and features, we are also made up of our thoughts and dreams, our memories and scars. That last day, as I walked through the rooms and courtyards with my sister and cousin, I imagined the spirit of the house leaving it. It was only years later that I realized, that the spirit had not left, it had merely shifted into the memories of all of us, who have inhabited it at various stages in our lives. It had transformed into a living museum of our memories.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The scent of nostalgia

The faintly acidic smell of ebony colored tamarind balls speckled with shiny bits of rock salt, make my tongue pucker up in anticipation of the sour, tart sensation; as if I have sucked on a piece of tamarind. The scent of tamarind and rock salt fills me with a sense of dormant excitement, a harbinger of the exciting things that lie ahead. It transports me to the ‘kottathalam’ the huge granite floored wash area in my grandmother’s home, lined with brass utensils waiting to be scoured out with the tamarind mix, until they glisten like gold. That for me signifies the start of the festival. Next to the wash area is the mammoth kitchen, which smells of burning wood and freshly pounded masalas, from the slow cooked curries, gently simmering away on the wood fired open stoves, like a contented elderly matron.
 The night before Vishu, is a magical time when the puja room in my grandmother’s house gets transformed into an ethereal space, filled with brocades and antique brass ware. The scent of fresh jasmine garlands and wreaths of golden hued ‘konna’ flowers hang heavily in the air, mixed with sandalwood scented incense and burning, oil soaked, plump cotton wicks. It is this scent which permeates our senses first, even as we falter in blindfolded, with clumsy steps, like a baby learning to walk; unsure of where to put its foot next. It somehow make the whole experience of actually seeing the beautiful arrangement of flowers, fruits, the deity adorned in brocade and bathed in a celestial amber light from the flickering lamps, more pleasurable; much like how eating a meal off delicate porcelain china, enhances the taste and the overall experience of the meal. 

The much awaited' kaineetam'*, brings with it, the scent of crisp, freshly minted currency ,which are doled out by benevolent relatives. Most childhood festival memories in my mind, feature my grandmother; with her gossamer thin muslin ‘ mundu veshti’* that smells of starch and buttery, mellow sunshine and soft skin which smells of Nivea cream and floral scented talcum powder, always ready to pamper us with gifts and time in equal measure.
Scents and odors, they say travel right up to the emotional or memory making part of your brain and words find their way up to the thinking parts. For me, it combines to turn an experience into a beautiful memory, to last a life time.
* Kaineetam:The popular tradition of elders giving money to younger ones or dependents of the family.

Friday, January 6, 2017

This is it --- Musings, as we embark on another trip around the sun.

The majestic copper pod tree, with its golden yellow and amber tinted flowers, framed by the windows, formed a living tapestry on my bedroom wall. The ground around the tree would almost always be carpeted with fallen yellow flowers; like a pool of liquid sunshine.

 At times, as I go about my day, putting away freshly laundered clothes, burying my face in it for a moment and taking in the scent of old sunshine and starch, I catch a glimpse of the tree, now shorn of all its adornment, gently reminding me that winter is on its way. At other times as I steal some moments, to tryst with my thoughts, curled up on the couch next to the window, the tree quivers in a gentle breeze and I see tiny buds sprouting up in preparation for spring. To me, the tree is a silent reminder of the seasons slipping off like pearls, from the thread of time.

So it seems to me a cruel twist of irony, that this tree with the brilliant yellow flowers which had so firmly planted itself as part of my daily life, should meet its end at the hands of another flower.
‘Vardah*‘ or the red rose, that wrecked havoc over Tamilnadu and gave us a whiff of what terror feels like, plucked   off my copper pod tree like a jasmine bud from a bower.  My eyes still keep  returning  to that spot where the tree stood, muddled  for a moment to see the vacant space, before the painful prick of reality sinks in, much like a person who has shaved her long locks off   keeps reaching for the hairbrush, to brush the nonexistent locks. Impermanence seems to me, a grey hooded sorcerer, who can change the world as we know it, with a wave of his mystical wand.  

I have often found that most of the unresolved questions in our lives, which often hover on self pity (why did this happen to me?) tend to be like, being spoken to in a foreign tongue. You can only respond after you have mastered /translated the language; the same way the answers will appear before you, when you are ready to see them in the light of your age earned wisdom.

‘Wabi-sabi’,the beautiful Japanese concept of finding beauty in imperfection and accepting impermanence, seems to me deceptively simple yet extremely difficult to follow in our daily lives.

 The act of being fully present in the moment and living it for what it is and not how we wish it would be, seems to me a lofty task. The opposite of inattention seems to be love, for I find that I can easily pay attention to something/ someone if love is involved. It does not require much effort from my part to be fully present, to be mindful.

 So then, this is it. This moment is all that we have. Everything else, the flowers and trees, our feelings and  priorities, our grudges and agonies, the look in  our  child’s eye, even  life as we know it today, are temporary.

 This new year, let us  get lost in little moments of mindfulness, pay close attention to our loved ones and keep an open heart; who knows, we may even find ourselves and each other in the process.

Happy New Year!


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Where the light gets in

Dr Denton Cooley, the name sounded exotic to my 6 year old self. It was unlike any other name I had heard before. It sounded exotic and important; a name to be uttered in hushed tones, respectfully, almost reverently. The fact that people were willing to travel to the opposite side of the earth, in the middle of a brutal winter to consult him, made him a sort of demigod in my eyes.

 To my sister and me, the celebrated cardiologist was nothing short of a hero, who had miraculously healed our beloved grandfather or ‘appachan’, as we fondly called him. I often picture my grandfather travelling with my father to faraway Houston, their maiden voyage to a foreign land; their bodies, used to tropical weather, reacting with shock to the sudden drastic  dip in temperature; their minds getting overwhelmed from having to absorb a whole new world around them.

Afterwards, when our grandfather lapsed into tales of his adventures abroad, he would describe the sterile hospital rooms and corridors, so clean that you could almost eat off its floors; the nurses with their kind, sympathetic eyes and accented instructions which made him feel almost guilty, for asking them to repeat it again, slowly. The huge portions of food they served, always with a helping of dessert, jelly which looked like brightly colored glass cubes or a sweet muffin, which he never managed to finish.

 His eyes lit up every time he spoke about Dr Cooley; the tall, soft spoken doctor who had given him the best gift a person could give another; the gift of time. Time, to watch his granddaughters grow from pig tailed girls to young women; time, to teach them the ways of the world, to love them, to know them and pass on his legacy to them.  His eyes turned moist and threatened to overflow when he spoke about Dr Cooley, who wore his celebrity status so lightly and treated each patient as a person first and not just a number to be ticked off the list, who took out the time to sit with the patient and his family, to answer their ‘silly’ doubts and dispel their fears. As Sir William Osler quoted, “A good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease”.

 “Have you seen the hands of God?’ he once asked me. Amused by my bewildered expression, he continued “it was a pair of hands that gently shook me awake, welcomed me into my new life after the surgery. It felt warm and surprisingly soft, as it held my hand and as I looked into Dr Cooley’s blue eyes speckled with a tinge of grey, I said to myself that these are the hands that gave me a new lease of life; these are the hands of God”.

“There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”.
-Leonard Cohen (Anthem)
You were that ray of light for our family, Dr Cooley. We thank you for that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A feast for the senses

It is not just any other day to linger in bed, but my eyes remain stubbornly shut, as I coax them to shed the cobwebs of delicious sleep that cling to them. It is the early hours of dawn when the day is still like a coy maiden, with the first rays of delicate, rosy tinted light streaking her pale cheeks.  I scramble out of bed, nudging my sleeping cousins, who crawl deeper into their quilts in response.
The house wears a shroud of serenity, which belies the frenzy of activities that will soon ensue. I sidle next to my paternal grandmother or ‘valliamma’ as we call her, helping myself to the milk biscuits that she religiously has with her morning coffee.  I listen to her going over the things planned for the day, as I dunk my biscuit into her glass of milky coffee and savour the sweet mush. The preparations and the festive air that precedes the festival, excites me more than the actual festival itself.  
When a little girl has her brand new silk skirt, the colour of a ripe pomegranate, trimmed with gold brocade, matching glass bangles that tinkle every time she moves her hands and little jhumkas (earrings) to complete the outfit; she wants nothing more from life- for that day. My cousins and I gather around our grandmother, dressed in our festive finery, which have been carefully chosen by her. She inspects each of us and adds her little touches; a smear of’ kajal’, a touch of talcum powder, smoothing out a ruffled pleat of a skirt. Her apparent joy in seeing us dolled up makes us silently vow, not to spoil our clothes or mess up our hair.

We troop out into the courtyard to help out with the flower carpet preparations, presided over by my grandmother. It is an ambitious project, but then, my grandmother is not known to do anything on a small scale. A talented artist bordering on genius, she has drawn an enormous picture of a little Krishna leaning against an ivory colored calf, a golden flute on his lips, under an arbour of multi colored flowers and creepers . Aunts, uncles, house helps, are all engrossed in various stages of preparations. There is a certain invisible hierarchy that is in play. The minions fetch the flowers and the leaves, sort it according to color and shred it to tiny bits, so that it looks like a smooth carpet when it is done. The more ‘talented assistants’ follow instructions and slowly use the flowers to add life to the picture, sometimes mixing two or three flowers to get that perfect shade. In the center of it all, sits my grandmother orchestrating this symphony of flowers.

It is almost noon and the great dining hall has been cleared of all furniture, cleaned and lined with straw coloured reed mats on the ebony coloured floor. Fresh banana leaves are placed in front of the mats and from a distance it looks like the room is framed with borders of beige and green. The center of the room is lined with a plethora of dishes in gleaming steel and brass utensils. There is steaming hot, fluffy rice to be doused with ghee and salted dal, the colour of daffodils. Sambar the quintessential lentil stew, tangy rasam ; avial, the medley of vegetables in a coconut paste, thorans, crisp, flavourful vegetable stir-fry spiked with shallots and a dash of freshly grated coconut, crunchy papadams and an assortment of chips, pickles, relishes and almost all the sidekicks that make up a malayalee sadhya. For dessert there are payasams; at least two kinds.  The entire family sits down to partake of this festive meal, like generations before us. The dishes remain the same over the years, the people sitting down to eat change; some new faces gets added some fade away.

Towards late afternoon, as the gluttony induced coma slowly ebbs, we race upstairs to the ‘unjal muri’ or the ‘swing room’ to claim the best seats on the swing. It is a huge rectangular shaped room, fringed on all sides with windows painted a mint green, bare except for a huge swing which hangs in the middle. The swing itself is gigantic and can easily hold six of us , painted to echo the same mint green colour of the windows. Most of the paint has peeled away revealing how popular it is with the inmates of the house. A room exclusively allotted to enjoy the pleasures that only a swing can provide. Some days we swing higher and higher till our  feet almost touches the ceiling and everything around us blurs and for those deliciously agonizing moments, it is just us, the wind in our hair and our heaving insides. On other days we lounge on its broad surface, devouring a good book or simply day dreaming, as it gently rocks us to and fro.
After we are sufficiently dizzy and nauseous, but miraculously ravenous enough to ponder on the snacks that will be served with tea; we ambush the harried cook, who is yet to recover from the lunch fiasco. There is pazhampori, batter coated sweetened bananas; plump ,crisp and golden brown and ‘elayada’  a  mixture of honey coloured jaggery and fresh coconut smothered in sugar, sealed in a disc of rice flour dough, wrapped in a piece of banana leaf and steamed till cooked.  The filling transforms into a treacle like consistency lending the perfect balance to the bland rice flour coating, and the burst of flavours as I bite into it is nothing short of alchemy.
The day slowly takes its last bow, amidst games, laughter, lively conversations and creating memories to last a life time.

Onam is perhaps one of the rare festivals that celebrate a demon king and his triumph over the gods. As the legendary king Mahabali who was banished to the netherworld, returns back for a day of revelry with his beloved subjects, how delightful it would be, to bring back our inner child, from the deepest recesses of our mind and spend a day filled with good food, family, laughter, games and the simple pleasures of life.
Happy Onam!