In Quest of a Home…

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My home is anywhere under the blue skies. I enjoy drifting like a cloud, exploring the world and in my thoughts the outer space. I see no boundaries… no limits in space or time…no barriers of cultures, language, religion or politics…

However, when recently a friend asked me why I was not contributing to develop my home…the place whose language I use as my mother tongue and where my ancestors had paused for a considerable period of time, I grew defensive instinctively. I tried to condense my life… Then, I started to say that I believe in mankind and not borders…and therefore lacked a need to belong or to be tied down to a region. I explained I try to help people in need wherever they are irrespective of borders. I see myself as a citizen of the world, a term coined by my fourteen-year-old more than half a decade ago…

The simple answer would have been do I consider the place my home…? I have never lived there. My great grandfather moved out… and none of his children returned to the region, leave alone his grand children… his ancestors had lived there for probably a little less than one and a half centuries. Before that, they were in an area that now belongs to another country…The first time I visited the city for a few days was when I was sixteen. Subsequently, I have visited the town a number of times because I really like the place. The issue now is that for the last twenty-five years, I have not even lived in the country I was born. For, more than the last couple of decades I have been roaming the world. I have lived in a number of countries, including China…

And yet stories are made and songs are sung to glorify Man’s homing instinct. John Denver’s song… Country road take me home to the place I belong…is a song I liked all along… but perhaps I like it for the ‘blue ridge mountains’ and the ‘… river’, for ‘the misty taste of moonshine’… I am not quite sure…

I love L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, again a story that centres on the protagonist Dorothy’s need to return home. I almost wept when Dorothy after her adventures in the land of Oz clicked her magic shoe clad feet and repeated, “There is no place like home. There is no place like home…” and she was magicked back to her home in Kansas…to the farm…and to aunty Em…Dorothy’s whole adventure took place because she wanted to return home from where she had been deposited by a swirling tornado, in the wonderful Land of Oz with it’s rainbow, Emerald Palace and magical creatures…

Analysing my tendencies, I would probably have continued in the Land of Oz like the wizard, who could not leave because the balloon did not take off…yet the story is about Dorothy and not the wizard…

There is something magical about visiting unexplored lands, a kind of promise that opens new horizons for the mind and heart. I loved reading the travels of Marco Polo, even though it may have had it’s biases. Tagore has a song that says  “kothao amar hariye java neyi mana, mone, mone…” ( “I can lose myself anywhere in my mind…”).

…And I do find myself getting lost in the mists of time when I read Marco Polo. Those days they wandered in search of trade through so many lands fraught with so many dangers. Then, at some point Marco returned home facing more adventures, weaving more fantasies (he talks of unicorns the size of elephants, cannibals and men with tails!). Despite his wonderful adventures he returned home, first to be imprisoned, then to become a merchant. But, what endears him to the world is the retelling of his marvelous adventures by his co-prisoner Rustichello da Pisa…

Sometimes, I wonder if all our ancestors had returned to their home, like Dorothy and Marco Polo, where would we all be? In the heart of Africa where mankind originated, where Lucy danced in the wilds? And how many people would the continent support? If we also retained our original culture and homes, what would we be like?

Perhaps, that is why this summer I am off to find answers to these questions in the rolling plains of Savannah grasslands that beckon me with the lure of endless mysteries… I am off to explore the part of the landmass where our ancestors originated…

The land that was first populated by man rolls out an invitation to explore why we all did not return home or why we developed other parts of the world which we spread out to populate over centuries and millenniums…and not our original home…

 

 

 

On the Fatness of Being

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Over the years, I have collected a wealth of wisdom, which has translated itself into layers of adipose that rest on my formerly frail frame, gently insulating me from low temperatures and hard surfaces. People envy me my layers of adipose for whenever I walk into shops, salesgirls come forward with slimming teas and creams. I find their behaviour a trifle peculiar as they try to persuade me to get rid of the layers of carefully nurtured wisdom. It is the same wisdom you can see in the laughing Buddha, the symbol of happiness and contentment.

One of the things that most people nowadays find difficult to comprehend is that necessarily a well-proportioned individual may not be a sick individual. They take it for granted that everyone needs to be of a certain weight-height ratio…something they call the Body Mass Index. This is all a matter of statistics. I used to fall sick every month when I had a slim and svelte figure…twenty years and two kids down the lane, my weight has almost doubled but I rarely fall sick. Earlier, doctors called me underweight. Now, they call me overweight. Will they ever be satisfied?

Recently, a friend who is slim and was an exercise freak had a major bypass. She had shooting chest pains. And, now, she is not allowed to exercise or travel or eat as she likes despite her lack of adipose. Whereas I am allowed to exercise (or not exercise as a matter of choice), travel and eat what I like despite my layers of wisdom. Doctors keep nagging but it is their nature to nag, exercise and diet. I have heard of a few cases where people died while exercising and some even developed anorexia nervosa while dieting.

I do not want to take risks and feel happy the way I am. I want a long life to enjoy the wonders of the universe. I want to read all the fascinating books I find around me. I want to travel to different places…Egypt…on camel back to the pyramids; Easter Island…to stand in the middle of the circle of rocks like an ancient druid and feel the rays of the rising sun bathe my portly being; the golden fort of Jaisalmer …on camel back again wearing a ghagra like a Rajasthani princess. Here, I must pause to let people know that riding on a camel back is not a hobby as you might think. Camel rides are bumpy and, as I learnt from my experiences in China and India, these creatures can make you feel your innards are all dislocated when they start to jog or run. Never underestimate a camel!

The reason I want to be on a camel is to savour the flavour of the locale.

One of the major advantages of accepting my ample proportions and not fearing life-threatening illnesses is that I can enjoy the world around me. If I go for a walk, it is to enjoy the good weather or the scenery around me. If I see a butterfly or an exquisite sunrise, I feel relaxed. When I hear waves lapping or the breeze whispering through trees, it is like soothing music to my ears. The span of a human life is less than a dot in the lifespan of the universe. Is it worthwhile to spend ones life worrying over our BMI or fearing illnesses?

I wonder if Shakespeare, Tagore or Khayyam ever jogged for fitness or worried about their BMI index. Yet they have left behind a heritage of writing which trancends their lives and times. They have eternalised their existence in the history of mankind.  Shakespeare lived a little over half a century. The other two were octogenarians. Reading their works makes me happy and content.

Finding happiness to me has become synonymous with enjoying the wonders of the universe, including my family and children and mankind’s fantastic existence. I want to live life to the full. Perhaps this quatrain of Khayyam’s best sums up my stance towards the fatness of being…

 

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring,

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling

The Bird of Time has but a little way 

To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on it’s Wing.

 

 

 

 

 

Book of the Week

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Title: The Wreck
Author: Rabindranath Tagore

The Wreck(1921) is a translation by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore of his own Bengali novel, Naukadubi(1906). It has been made into a film in 2011. Though the movie does capture part of the essence of the story, it does not do full justice to the original novel.
The story revolves around shipwrecks( rather boat wrecks) caused by the sudden onset of a storm on Ganges. Two newly married couples get separated and the bride of one party mistakes the groom of the other one for her own. The story revolves around her being united with the real groom. The man she took as her groom lost his bride in the storm to death. In contrast to the surviving bride, Kamala, is her rescuers’s highly-educated and westernised girl friend, Hemnalini. The love and personality of Kamala is unique. She is strong and upright. When she discovers she is with the wrong groom, she leaves him. She doesnot want to live on charity and pity. She has self-respect. She starts working as a cook till she finds her true husband and love.
What I love most about this book is not just Tagore’s lucid writing but also the way in which he brings out the strength of an uneducated, mildly-lettered village girl. Despite having no western-education or formal schooling, Kamala emerges stronger, more courageous and more focussed than the western-educated Hemnalini. Kamala actually proves true what the philosopher Vivekananda had said that education is the manifestation of knowledge already existing in man(woman, in this case).
This book also gives a glimpse of the status of women in the nineteenth century Bengal society. Women were cherished and regarded with respect. They were not objectified or judged based on their appearance or level of schooling.
I love reading and re-reading this book. Each reading gives me inspiration and fresh food for thought.
The book is now available not just in paperback but as a free google download too.

Oh Calcutta!

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The Calcutta I Love

I have never lived in Calcutta but I love the city.

What I love about Calcutta is not the places to visit but the spirit of the city. I love it’s people, it’s history, it’s antiquity, it’s culture, it’s flavors, fabulous cuisines and it’s multi-culturalism. People are passionate about what they feel and do. Life feels vibrant!

The first time I visited Calcutta was in the late 1970s. I was a teenager, had just completed my grade ten, and was on the way to a sleepy village in Assam, Rajapra, with my parents who were visiting the village to help set up medical care. Calcutta was a direct contrast to Rajapara in certain senses.

Rajapara was like a beautiful green gem beside a lake which yielded the tastiest Chitol ( Indian featherback) fish I have had in my life! It was a tiny village a few hours drive from Guwahati. I remember how darkness descended suddenly in Rajapara the first evening. We had just arrived. It was daylight and then it was pitch black. You could see the stars glimmering like diamonds in the night sky. My eyes had grown up with city lights in New Delhi and here, there was no electricity. There was no dusk in Rajapara. Day and night…a sudden transition! The sudden onset of darkness scared and surprised me. I started to cry.

Calcutta never instilled a sense of surprise or fear in me. The only strange and likeable thing, I found was that everybody used my mother-tongue, Bengali. Women were also more respected than in Delhi, where I was growing up. I liked that too. Of course, I do not know if that is more an East Indian thing. In Rajapara, I remember women played a pivotal role in the village and were involved in the decision making. I remember one funny thing. Married women were not allowed to ride elephants. So, I could take a tour of the village on an elephant but my mother couldnot. My father preferred to keep off the ride as he is always apprehensive of animals and their reactions.

In Calcutta, the most unique ride we had was in the tram. It chugs along slowly and you can pretty much get on and get off as you please. My father loved the tram ride. It reminded him of his university life in Calcutta in the 1950s and 60s. What I found unique about buses and trams in Calcutta was not just the way they accomodated women, children and old people and catered to their needs but also the political and cultural discussions among passengers who didnot know each other and would probably never meet again.

My father also spoke highly of the Esplanade. He compared it to the speaker’s corner in Hyde Park, London. I had not been to London as yet and, to me, Esplanade seemed like an overcrowded field. In retrospect, I think he was referring to the spirit of the places. Hyde Park and Esplanade both have an interesting ambience of antiquity. The last time we were in Calcutta in December 2014, I remember there was a political rally in Esplanade. That was the day we decided to visit our favorite landmark in Calcutta near that area, the Victoria Memorial. Our friends and relatives advised us against it but we went ahead. Not only was the traffic very well managed but there were no disruptions or delays faced by us. The only thing that we did experience was that the museum and the grounds were more crowded than usual but, it was a well-organised crowd.

Victoria Memorial, I feel, is one of the most emblamatic places in Calcutta. It has the old and new merged in it’s essence. The exhibits are really antique and fabulous, including the manuscripts on the first floor but the crowds are new and vibrant. The gardens surrounding the museum are beautifully laid out and very well maintained still. I have been there thrice in the last three years, twice in February and once in December, and each time I was impressed by the vibrancy of the flowers, the people and the museum.

The Victoria Memorial is about a century old and was paid for by the Indian princes and members of the British Raj. It was proposed by Lord Curzon as a memorial to the dead Queen Victoria. Despite the freedom movement in India which was aiming at independence and nationhood by Indians, people did pay their respects to the monarch as a ruler and a historical figure by coughing up generous amounts of cash to build the museum. The contribution by the monied people of India at that point is a unique characteristic of what builds great civilizations. They could think in terms of mankind and not of boundaries that are being drawn all the time in the name of nation, culture and religion.

A visit to Victoria memorial calls for a lunch at either Peter Cat or Mocambo. Every time I think of Peter Cat, I dream of their scrumptious Chelo kebab. They serve chicken and lamb kebabs with butter rice and a poached egg. It is the most mouth-watering dish I have ever eaten in my life. When I think of it, my mouth starts salivating automatically and I experience throws of hunger pangs! Last year, we visited Peter Cat on New Year’s eve at lunch time. There was a huge queue. My hungry sons agreed to wait two hours for lunch… An unheard of occurrence in any other restaurant in the world! And when the Chelo kebabs came, it was like manna from heaven…Peter Cat with it’s lurid red interiors has an ambience of the nineteen sixties, when it came into being. Interestingly, it was named after a cat that prowled the Lords’ cricket grounds in London from 1952 to 1964 and Calcutta is cricket crazy!

Mocambo is famous for it’s bhetki fish( sea bass) steak. The bhetki is domicile of the Bay of Bengal and is plattered into fantastic recipes in Bengal. Mocambo has adopted local foods and given them a twist of the multicultural society of Calcutta. The restuarant started in 1956 and featured European managers and crooners. Now, what remains are the fabulous recipes, a mixture of Bengali and western food. Calcutta is historically known to have hosted not just the British but also the Armenian, Dutch and French among it’s vast plethora of conquistadors with their specific areas of interest.

Calcutta came into existence as a city when the East India company began to use it as their trade outpost. Earlier, it existed as three villages till it was united into one city for trade purposes. The name of the legendary Job Charnock who lived and worked for the East India Company in the 1600s comes into ones mind when one thinks of Calcutta. However, in 2003, his name was wiped off as the founder of Calcutta by a High Court ruling and Calcutta was respelled as Kolkata.

I have never been able to figure out the need for a compulsive national identity. My identity lies in being a human being, and hopefully a good one. Even if they spell Calcutta as Kolkata, the flavour of the city continues multicultural.

Calcutta was the home to many illustrious nobel laureates, like CV Raman, Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen. I visited the home of one in Jorasankho, Rabindranath Tagore. My mother-in-law who was with us and is an avid admirer of Tagore’s songs and poetry, sang his lyrics sitting in his courtyard. It was really a very inspiring experience. This was where he wrote in his early years and Santiniketan University was the product of his later years.

There are so many places to visit in Calcutta that despite making half-a-dozen trips, I have a vast number of things that I would still love to see. This time at last my sons had a glimpse of the famous Hooghly river on the way to Botanical Gardens to see a Banyan tree that is more than 250 years old and has lived through the rise of Calcutta. The river Hooghly is a tributary of Ganges in it’s lower reaches. We crossed on the famed Hooghly bridge. This is something I had wanted to do with my sons for many years. I was sad to see the disrepair the utilities in the Botanical Garden have fallen to. The bathroom was disgusting and unusable.

It is also heart wrenching to see the way some live as one approaches the Tagore mansion in Jorasankho. The poor in this area live in tiny tenements on the drains. They do not seem sad about it. I wonder if they lived in the same squalid state in Tagore’s times. Looking at the dirt and the tiny hovels, I can figure out why many would react badly to Calcutta, or for that matter, to any city in India. Perhaps, over the years, having lived in a diverse variety of cultures and countries, I find the calm acceptance of poverty and filth by people who are wealthy a little alarming. It is great to have. But, it is a happier experience to be able to give and to make ones surroundings clean and pleasant.

Despite the sombre notes of the city, I love the happiness and optimism one sees among the rich and poor in the city. Everybody has a smile for you. I would go as far as to say that it is one of my favorite cities in the world!

Leaving China

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Chapter 10

My utopia is a world where Khayyam and Tagore would walk together, crossing the barriers of time, space and age…

It would be an island in the bright blue ocean with lush green vegetation where birds and plants would proliferate. Arthur C Clarke and Asimov would be discussing the future of mankind with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Perhaps, someday Marco Polo would dock on it in a ship with Kublai’s crew… And I would sit there with my I pad and invisibly watch and record all the action! It would be a bit like Asimov’s Gaia, except the collective mind would draw borders at telepathic communication. The weather would be eternal spring and it would be sunshine forever. We would all be in touch with the most positive in our mindset.

A dash of Nikolai Tessla playing with his lightening rods and Shakespeare directing his plays in a natural theatrette, made with a circular chain of low lying hills…the sky would be bright blue with white clouds…and maybe, sometimes, Mozart and Beethoven would create music by the seaside with instruments that never got wet or spoilt. Indian maestros like Mallikarjun Mansur would match the sound of the waves in open air concerts and Bhimsen Joshi would sing Meghmallar to bring on a sprinkle of rain. Occasionally, the Beatles would go crazy with their guitaring. And Jean Pierre Rampal would create and play a Jazz piece called Utopia!

I know it all sounds insane but I had the opportunity in China to get more in touch with all these things. What was fantastic was I had friends who could relate to these things and not get peeved by talk of my Utopia. I was amazed that people did not find my ideas or tastes boring and traditional. Some of my expat friends spoke of greats from their culture and I learnt more. There was a feeling of give and take. Local Chinese appreciated the fact that I wrote. A local friend told me that it was good I wrote my book on China. They wanted to translate it. But, I had a flight to catch…back to Singapore.

We had a two week wait in a hotel before we boarded our flight out of China. The new ruling had it that we needed to be within the country when they checked on the things we were taking back home with us. The rulings in China can change anytime and you need to comply to them and move on. My utopian ideal was one thing but it was really tough living out of suitcases for two weeks, even though it was in a five star hotel. But, there were people who seemed to like it. One day we met an American who lived in the hotel permanently. He and his visiting teenage son were returning to their room when he paused to remark on Surya’s antics as my younger son was singing something crazy and doing weird walks along the corridor in a bid to dispense his extra energy. It was hazy outside and we could not do our usual walk for the high PSI levels.

At home, Surya would have read, played a game or watched a movie. In the hotel, Aditya had a different room. We didnot allow the kids to rent movies. And he had to create his own entertainment. So, he did…except we had an amused audience of the American and his son… To me it was really strange that a person, even if he were living alone, would choose to stay in a hotel on a daily basis. It would be so restrictive. You could never cook yourself a gastronomic delight from your heart! You could never do up your room with your choice of colours and paintings. You could never argue in loud voices with your family. You could never invite your friends over for a meal cooked by you. You could never try out a new musical instrument in the later hours of the evening. But your laundry would be done without an effort and you would never need to shop for groceries!

Trying out a musical instrument in an apartment is difficult too…coming to think of it. I remember, in China, a friend’s husband practiced his guitaring in their pent house apartment every night. The neighbours downstairs found it unacceptable and complained regularly. We were luckier in China. When Aditya practiced his french horn, our Finnish neighbour upstairs was really delighted. He wanted to know if Aditya could play the Finnish National Anthem on the french horn. We have never had issues with boys practising the piano, guitar, recorder or clarinet at home but we had issues with Surya jumping in his bedroom at 10 pm in Singapore to get the pool water out of his ear. I had an irritated teenage neighbour who lived downstairs standing outside my door and shouting. I had to call in the security to calm her and her parents and escort them downstairs. Quite an experience for us!

In China, locals could inconvenience us by abstaining from presenting themselves in time or completing the assigned work in time but we had always found them very courteous in their behaviour towards foreigners. So, the shouting really came as a shock to us in Singapore. The feeling I get here often is that people are disatisfied and unhappy. In China, the feeling was of an upsurge of happiness and hope which is why it was easier for me to visualise my utopia while I was there.

While we waited at the hotel to leave China, we caught up on some more sightseeing within Suzhou. There was this ancient temple called Ling Yan temple in the water town of Mudu. I and my sons had been to it once during a summer we spent in Suzhou in 2009, I think. My husband was working. The view from the hilltop was fantastic. I still remember a monk who helped us find our way to the temple on top of a steep hill and disappeared mysteriously. He was very excited when he saw us and insisted on calling us mother and the little buddha from India. I do not know which one of my sons he was alluding to but I am guessing, it was Surya as he was obviously the little one!

imageWhen we went back the second time with my husband, we discovered the temple had a lovely garden at the foothill with peacocks strutting, and occassionally dancing, around. There were  some ancient Indian artefacts too in the temple. It was evidently founded by an abbot called ‘the light of India’. We were not clear about the Indian connection but there was something there. After savouring the views and exploring the temple as we walked back to the car, we came across various vendors, including a palmist, who insisted on telling my future. He wanted his palm crossed by a red note…100 rmb… We were forced to give in. A crowd collected as he foretold a glorious future for me. He said I would be very happy when I turn sixty! Now, at the threshold of fifty, I am desperately waiting to reach sixty so that I can see what are the fantastic things life holds out for me…will I become a princess with silver blonde locks, will I become a popular author, will my husband and I win a lottery and go on a world tour or, most excitingly, will I become a grandmother and have the opportunity at last of spoiling babies rotten…

With such happy thoughts, I bid adieu to China. As the flight took off from Shanghai, I had my last glimpse of the city of fabulous night lights and futuristic buildings and looked forward to a new adventure in Singapore, the city of the Merlion.