Monday, November 10, 2014

Pinned Here

My patient reader knows of my room mates, the cats, who have, of long, provided an anchor, a steadying presence, even a definition of what constitutes the idea of home for me. I have considered myself extremely fortunate in having the felines around me. Our relationship, I would insist, goes beyond normal language, our lexicon is structured around analyzing moods rather than actual combination of syllables or sounds. We do communicate, sometimes more effectively than the way I communicate with my students, even.

With my room mates, I do not worry about how my words may be mis-heard, unheard, unremembered, sometimes even misunderstood, like I have to when I speak to my classes. Of course, in my household, like with every household, we are careful not to tread on toes (and paws), not to hurt feelings, to follow the rules of courtesy required for the wheels of routine to rumble on without too many pot holes and other disasters. These rules of adjustment are the same my child and I had figured out when we used to regularly live together, the unspoken acknowledgements, conceding, bowing and stepping, all part of the same dance.

I have felt that the cats and I, the WE who inhabit this space right now, have danced and stepped together enough to merit being considered a household. A lot of my friends point out that this "relationship" is one sided: I seem to depend more on the cats than they on me. The cats are quite capable of feeding themselves (and even me, if only I would agree to adjust my diet to include mice, roaches, snakes, and lizards). They do not much care if it is a bush that keeps them warm and dry from rain or if they are curled up on cat beds around my house. They seem to be quite capable of protecting themselves, even to the extent of keeping their own pet possum in my little backyard.

All this is true. In fact, I have often wondered if the cats notice if I am in the house (unless I am feeding them). It seems that they ignore me, mostly, and unlike dogs, they do not particularly respond to my need for hugs. A few of them do tolerate being held for a breath, and then leave on their terribly important errands and routines, without which, they seem sure, the sun would not rise or set.
I am sure that mine is just one of the many houses they reside in at different parts of their routines. It is not home for them the way it is for me, the way they are for me.

However, then there are days given to the rains, when the horizon well-nigh disappears, when even a breath seems wet; a day very much like yesterday, when I could not hear the television for all the booming and thundering and crashing waterfalls everywhere. All the cats found their way into the big room where I spend most of my waking hours. They chose spots on the floor, in a box, on cat beds, in sofa corners, even a couple of spots on cat furniture. By the time evening fell, I realized that I had fed them all faster than ever, since they were all in the same place and I didn't have to wait for stragglers to stop by. I was glad of that.

As the evening progressed, I also realized that I was, for lack of a better epithet, pinned to my preferred place in the big room. Like points on some compass, the cats had arranged themselves to keep an eye on each other and on me, even as they napped. If I got up to get a book or a drink, all feline heads shot up in alarm, to watch closely what transpired once I had abandoned my assigned space. If I failed to return to my assigned spot in the duration that followed feline reasoning, the youngest kitten would skitter around the house to escort back the truant. The oldest cat watched the kitten and the alpha cat watched the oldest cat. The other kitten remained on alert, in case reinforcements were necessary. The remaining two cats laid their heads down to maintain their napping mien.

The ease with which I fit into this dance argues that I am used to this routine from other rainy days. The way in which we form families, anchors, thin threads that bind us to this plane of existence, are as amazing as they are varied. The idea of mortality looms as my kidney disease advances and as I become more aware of the terrible battles for survival I see being waged around me.

I may not own much in way of wealth or wisdom, but here, in this navel of the world, I have validity. Here, I am pinned in my own place, with designated steps for a familiar dance, with responsibility to participate in a routine.

If unpinned, I would be missed. Here.


Monday, October 27, 2014


I have protection on my mind. Last week, I visited a dialysis center and it has brought the extraordinary quality of my skin to the fore. The nurse repeatedly emphasized the importance of keeping all infection away since I would have an open way in the body cavity. I nodded sagely in solemn agreement.

Later that day, I accidentally touched a hot kettle and the cat accidentally scratched me. My hand felt the accidents and as is my wont, I ignored them and went about my work. Today, I noticed the new, pale, unbroken skin beneath the little burned patch and the red angry scratch scar had healed over.

This is absolutely and totally incredible and magical! My skin is so perfect a protector to the rest of me, that my sensitive inner organs need no armor, no pelt, no spikes. The skin is alive, with an intelligence of its own and knows its job, which it pursues relentlessly, determined, it seems, to protect the rest of me beyond the foreseeable future. Protean in its nature, it changes its hues, shades, textures, and size to keep up with my changing body. A skin-less opening can spell so much disaster that a separate intelligence, diligence, and deliberation are constantly needed, and even then, it is only a matter of time when "human error" will lead to serious infections.

Previously, I have confessed my amazement at the miracle the body is, one's first and last home, one's best friend if only one would let it, whose betrayal leaves one broken in unimaginable ways. It must have indeed been a benevolent star that oversaw the evolving of multi-cellular mammals. And incredible as all other organs are, the skin is the one that gives us a face, expresses feelings, gives alerts to the rest of the body, like an interactive suit from a futuristic world.

Today, I m feeling a bit under weather (either a burst cyst or a pulled muscle, I cannot quite tell) and my skin envelops and comforts me better than any quilt can. It provides me further comfort, the kind only a friends-and-family photo album can. Instead of haunting my facebook for memories, I examine my arm, my leg, my face: here is the scar I got when I fell down the steps of my grandfather's house; that faint streak of paler shade is the medal of honor I received when I fell off my bike for the first time; that birthmark on my shoulder is the same I share with my daughter; this one I inherited from my mother; the wrinkles at the edges of my eyes are very much like the ones my father had, my favorite part of his smile.

How incredible that the connections I am always looking for, which bind me to the world I have trotted away from, are always with me; all I need is a mirror that speaks the truth!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Gift Day

First of all, let me wish all my readers a wonderful new year, full of health, prosperity, love and joy. Today marks the first day of Vikram Samvat 2071, the Hindu new year. I feel compelled to write something today for a variety of reasons, the main one being that contrary to expectations, it has been a good day.

I am in stage five of my kidney disease, a gradually deteriorating condition I have been living with for over two decades, so much so that it feels a part of my self-image. It is almost as though my failing kidneys have created an unconsciousness in part of my thinking process and without really thinking about it, I wonder how an action, food, or weather pattern might affect them. Today, I was to visit a dialysis center, to mentally prepare for the process when the time comes.

I confess, I was apprehensive. I tried not to notice that it was New Year's day; I told myself to snap out of it and not to expect extra luck. After all, I was not in a melodramatic Hindi serial!

As it turned out, the Script Writer of my day must have begun the day with sweet, saffron infused milk, which must have resulted in an extraordinarily good mood. I imagine the nib dipped in a rich, purple ink pot, and a beatific smile on the Writer's face as the first words are sketched.

I walked out in the cloudy, soft day feeling relieved and clear headed. The dialysis nurse explained the process and as she talked, I could visualize including this procedure as part of my day. The nurse also assured me that I would "feel better" once dialysis started; I was surprised since I do not feel unwell. However, her reassurance, explanations, and calm demeanor of the people around her reassured me. There was no sense of alarm, no condolences offered, no guarantees promised.

The only glitch seemed to be the availability of a half hour during my work day to finish this process; I needn't have worried since my schedule for next quarter presents an entire hour between classes! How propitious! It seemed all was falling into place. I was told that even traveling should not be a problem.

After visiting the dialysis center, I rushed to the temple for a small puja a group of my friends were participating in. I had expected to reach too late, but good fortune again smiled and I did not miss a single shloka. The temple is a place of unspeakable, unimaginable peace and well-being; there is that swishing of peepul leaves as the wind sighs through it and the sound is like nowhere else on the planet I have been. An anxiousness in the center of my being settles down and sways with that sound, as the ageless, timeless shlokas wash over my head like a benediction.

I decided to push my luck farther and went down to the library, seeking the perfect book on tape for my car ride to work next week. I cannot express my joy at the treasure I have found: an entire collection of the Bard's plays, arranged in a row on a back shelf. My knees gave way and I almost wept in sheer relief and gratitude at this.

It is almost the end of the day, and I just finished talking with some of my childhood friends, a rare thing indeed, as all of us are scattered over various continents, across oceans.

What a gift of a day! I am grateful for having lived it. I wish my readers the same kind of year before us, a year infused with warmth of friends and family, propitious chances, clear mindedness, and all of it punctuated with islands of enriching solitude for quiet contemplation and reflection. May King Vikaramaditya's wisdom light the year, help make friends with the demon perched on our shoulder as we make our way through the grey fog of tomorrows, and may we emerge victorious like the king, whose, name keeps log of our passing years.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fobbed Off

In the middle of somewhere in Southern England, there is a little town where tour buses stop not for long, only to give a tantalizing glimpse of the well-renowned charm of the English countryside. This town is sleepy and most shops are still closed at 10am. In fact, as though to underline the effect, there is a plaque hung on the wall of the only open shop, that claims that at this spot, nothing happened whatsoever. This town is supposed to be eminently forgettable, and of course, manages to be the opposite. I am thinking of that town today; that is exactly the kind of day I wanted this to be.

I have previously blogged about the joys of doing nothing, of having forgettable days, of the importance of the fallow season. Yesterday, I decided that I'd give myself this day off. I woke up earlier than usual and cleaned up the usual messes the old cat makes, anticipating a wonderfully nothing day. The other cats watched me cautiously all morning, wondering when I'd leave, since I seemed to be in a hurry. When I finally finished, I arranged myself on my usual spot on the couch; the kitten napping next to the spot jumped up and left the house, spooked at my strange break in routine.

When I sank down on my spot, I had decided against doing anything of import. However, somewhere in the middle of the day, as I checked mail and handled the recycling, I saw my car.

I knew the day would be lost in all manner of ways.

I was not wrong, more is the pity.

I have a new key fob that needs to be programmed to my car, and wikis and youtube videos had assured me it is easy work, no need to worry, none whatsoever. So I decided that since this job was not of much import (I have one working key), it would be allowed on a day like today. So armed with instructions, I clicked open the car and flicked my perfectly good nothing-day away.

The instructions wanted me to put in and remove my key fob a certain amount of times, within a certain number of seconds, and magically, the car would respond. It all felt like magic, like so much of science does: a certain action repeated in a particular configuration, like a ritual right out of The Golden Bough, and the magic would take.

Unfortunately, this spell was faulty, or I failed to follow the ritual properly, because the key fob stared back unresponsive at me and the car remained stubbornly silent and cold. Unbelieving, I tried running the car around a few blocks, thinking that perhaps she just needed to wake up a bit. Then, I let her rest for exactly a blink and a half, and began the ritual again.

Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results; perhaps he fails to understand the importance of repeating a ritual during a process of magic. Be that as it may, I stopped after four hours, since the neighbors began glancing uncomfortably in my direction, as I switched on and off the car and opened and closed the door, as though caught in some kind of inexplicable rhythm. The man walking his dog from the land behind mine guided his canine friend away, and the woman from two doors across steered the children she was supervising towards the large trees, encouraging them to move away from my stationary car, going off and on as though possessed.

I am defeated: the little black plastic box that looks like a defunct controller of a toy car remains unconquered. In deference to my neighbors, I have slunk back onto my spot on the couch, but I cannot stop glaring at the fob and beyond it, at the car. Of course, I make sure that my glaring at the car is not too baleful: it would never do to have my most important friend be angry with me.

I think I shall refrain from checking mail or handling any recycling until I can recover from today. The cats are absolutely right: one must make an effort to resist the siren call of chores and sit still until the world spins away.

A mug of saffron tea, tempered with lemon and ginger helps immensely if a day is to be successfully fobbed off. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

To Ephesus and Back

Two children play with their Ken dolls just before bedtime. They pretend that the dolls are sets of estranged twins (a very logical sort of play, considering the likeness of all Kens). The kids hear their mother and quickly throw the dolls into their toy box and the stage darkens. When it lights up again, actors emerge from the toy box and we are transported to Ephesus and to the delightful, fresh fun that Comedy of Errors remains.

Yesterday's closing performance of the play at Sol Theatre was charming in its anachronisms (like the Godfather theme for Balthazar), easily recognizable (Antipholus and Dromio are dressed like Ken dolls), and just the best time to be had of an afternoon. The dialogue retains its freshness when placed in the 21st century, and fits in marvelously with contemporary cadences, slang, and Barbie-world costumes. In fact, these underline the farcical nature of the play and I do not remember the last time I had laughed so hard. No, wait, I do remember; it was at another production of Sol, so it was the same place that I had laughed like this.

The director of the theatre is a friend so close that had it not been for her, I'd have curled up in a cave long ago and disappeared from the world; knowing me well, she mandated that I not miss this one. I have not, of late, been as regular an audience as I once was, since my child, whose home the theatre is, has already flown the coop, and going to her theatre without her seems unreal. But I am always welcomed and I know to listen to my good friend when she says I should not miss this. So I knew that I'd have a good time when I left home yesterday. But I was not prepared for the helpless, breath stealing laughter, the kind that hurts your ribs afterwards, the kind that you never ever want to live without.

This production is dedicated to the director who, tragically, never got to see this product in its finished stage. I cannot think of a more fitting celebration of life. The actors sang her favorite song, played their parts with such passion that I will forever think of them as those characters, and celebrated the one they missed, thanking her at the end of the play, amidst a well-deserved standing ovation.

I came away refreshed and renewed, with a smile that refuses to leave me, even now. The production was sparkling with brilliance, and that is an understatement. I have always enjoyed my Shakespeare when played in a park or in a black box theatre, so it WAS the perfect Shakespeare for me. There are, of course, extra perks attendant to every Shakespeare and yesterday provided those as well: I met a fellow Bard-o-phile, and re-met an extremely talented actor whose work I have always, always admired, after a decade.

There are certain outings I always look forward to, even though I am going alone, and yesterday was one of them. Yesterday's outing has enriched me immeasurably. My world feels connected, somehow, as though the words written five centuries ago have reached out to heal me, to set cogs in motion in my internal machine so that now, everything fits.

What can I say? I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Salt to Taste

There is something missing. I cannot quite put my finger on it; I can actually taste the bitterness of turmeric and it mixes awkwardly with the sweetness of peas. The bland under-taste of eggplants weighs down my dish. I consider adding a teaspoon of coconut water but desist; this pot does not need more sweet. I chop up some more onions and sauté them with ground ginger and green peppers. But even this condiment, though it has a delicious bouquet, fails to bring coherence to the pot. I cannot believe the eggplant-and-peas sabji, a staple to my plate for over 45 years, a dish I can whip together without much thought at all, this vegetable pot which is almost second nature to me is causing such anguish.

Actually, I do know what the problem is: salt. My patient reader will remember that I've have to forgo all salt in what I cook. I have been following this diet for over a year now and usually, I do not miss the salt. Natural salt content of foods is enough. In fact, I have been grateful for the noticeable reduction in salt, as salt often tends to overwhelm the food and drowns a lot of subtle flavors. I have been learning to notice and appreciate those. When my family watches me eat my salt-less food, I know that they believe that I am braving my way through the portion. However, that has not been the case. So I am amazed at my missing the salt today.

If one were to assume that the intake and enjoyment of food are connected to the consumer's internal emotional landscape, then my missing salt today explains itself. The stretched out twilights, the endless, still afternoons, the mornings that often creep by, and the unmoving nights might very well reflect gaping holes in my suddenly empty house. My house gets filled during Summer and empties out just when Fall is beginning. When Eid comes around, my visiting family is getting their material together; Rakshabandhan brings packed bags and wound up rooms; by the time Janmashtmi and Ganesh Chaturthi roll around, my house is empty. Suddenly, my meager shelves of my fridge and larder seem well-stocked; the cats wander in and out of the house as though lost; the 4pm tea time becomes fluid and I often have 2-3 cups of tea a day, not to mark part of day or prahar, but because all my work gets done faster than I expect.

Of course, this is all part of my annual ritual and all is well and predictable. Like water that always seeks its own level, so does my house. I know that beginning tomorrow, I will have no time to sit and sip the bottomless mug of tea; in fact, I will wonder how I had the time to have visitors in the Summer! Actually, this balance is already righting itself, finding itself. My quarter is fast concluding, with its hectic grading and a thousand little and large i's to be dotted and t's crossed. And we all know power of a hectic routine to establish equilibriums of all sorts.

When I called my child today, she sounded harried and when asked, she claimed that she is very busy settling down. I had to smile; her phrase describes exactly what my house seems to be doing all year long: busy settling down, and settle down my house will. I have packed the week's portions of the sabji in manageable boxes. I know that when I gobble it down at lunch tomorrow, I will not miss the salt. But tonight, I want to remember the taste of salt, the taste of sabjis my tongue does not forget. I want to savor the bitterness of turmeric, the gravid blandness of the eggplant, the unreasonable sweetness of peas; my taste buds can add salt to taste from memory.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The God of Monsoons and Peacocks!

The afternoon is dim with clouds. I cannot hear the TV because of the rolling thunder. The cats just burst into the kitchen, glaring accusingly at me, holding me accountable for the wet, rumbling day. It is a perfect Janmashtmi! Today celebrates the birth of Krishna, the god whose skin is the inimitable hue of rain clouds.

There are many celebrations scheduled all over the world, in temples, in homes, on streets. Agile youngsters will crawl over each other to make human pyramids high enough to reach a pot filled with yogurt and curds, tempered with honey and basil, hung high above traffic lights, swinging at unimaginable altitudes. The crowd will cheer as the smallest child reaches the pot and breaks it open, spilling sweetened yogurt over everyone, scattering marigold petals around the world. Loudspeakers perched high on street corners will blare filmi music, for there is plenty of that which revolves around the child god. Babies will be dressed in Krishna costumes and fed treats, much to their alarm and delight. Complete strangers will color each other in gulal, erasing separations in a singular joy that celebrates life, recognizable as it is ubiquitous.

I remember this day every year, though I have stopped celebrating it ritualistically since my child is all grown up and not in town any more. But this was a day I used to look forward to as a child. The preparations would begin days, even weeks before. Our Guruji, the Kathak teacher, would assemble todas and thaats constructed around the exploits of the young Krishna, as he stole freshly churned butter from pots, saris and clothes from bathing gopis, and hearts from the entire population of Brij land. We would learn permutations of rhythms, and as we owned those new combinations, we felt the joy of anticipating the festival. The children of the street would put together a show of dances to be performed on the day. Families would create elaborate, colorful jhupadi or hut exhibitions, depicting scenes from Krishna's childhood, and these would be displayed for a week.

Our street was also the playground for the children of the families that lived along its banks. On nights leading up to Janmashtmi, children would gather after supper and play would continue deep into the night, long after the living rooms were converted into bed rooms, lights blinked off in apartments, and women emerged on front porches with grain to pick through and vegetables to chop for the next day's meals. Stories would be told about Krishna's life, tales of enormous trees who were really monsters; mouths that opened to show a view of the entire cosmos; poisonous, many-hooded serpents who could be conquered with a dance and a bargain; and, of course, the eternal raas lila, the roundel that accompanies Krishna stories everywhere. Mothers deliberately left out freshly butter, along with other treats, so that their children could "steal" these when they returned from school, and when the household smiled indulgently at the child, they were really worshipping a god.

I remember looking forward to outings, especially, since clothing, ornaments, and peacock feathers created specially to fit the divine infant would be sold on city streets, along with Janmashtmi treats, and each street corner boasted its own jhupadi. During recess at school, talk revolved around the most decorated jhupadis and where they might be found, and the peculiar delicacy each family cooked during this festival. Even the curriculum at schools did not remain untouched. We had quizzes based on the Krishna Lila sections of the Mahabharata in General Knowledge classes; Krishna-poems abounded in Hindi classes; a bhajan, a devotional song by Narsinh Mehta would be included in our usually secular prayer halls that began the school day. Our school, too, had its own cultural program to celebrate this festival, and a special students' council would be established to oversee the jhupadi our school sponsored.

As I consider the wet afternoon thundering with elephantine roars, I ponder on the fact that every year, on this day, it rains like this, at least once. Of course, it is quite possible that this is no coincidence or divine design, just the usual weather pattern the year follows. However, as I raise my cup of tea to the God of Joy; I am grateful for the memories his birthday has granted me. These memories remind me of a world gone by, of times that have revolved away with the earth's circumambulations, leaving behind an aftertaste of sweetened yogurt I am no longer allowed.

I watch a yellowed leaf drift lazily through the drizzle and imagine it a marigold petal. I believe the joy I take in my tea this afternoon is as true as any I have felt during midnight street games, the newly owned thaats, and the inimitable taste of white, soft, freshly churned butter. If I concentrate hard enough, I am sure to inhale the fragrance of sandalwood my grandmother used to smear on the idol of the infant god of monsoons and peacocks.

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