Thursday, February 22, 2018

Beirut is where Michele (pronounced mi-SHEL) lives.

Street Art in Gemmayzeh
"What's he doing?"

"Polishing?"

"They look like spikes."

Angela and I are in Beirut. It's our first time in the city. 

We wanted to see each other. The current blockade makes it extremely difficult to visit each other as she lives in Dubai and I in Doha. We were looking for nearby destinations. The flights to Beirut looked good to travel on staff rebate. 

So here we are, a day after Valentine's, exploring a city both of us have read about in books and in recent news.  

We see an old man hunched over a low work bench. He's sitting in a deep chair with armrests with his back to the street, his hands are busy polishing what looks like brass spikes.

We carry on walking.

"What do you think he's making?" asks Angela.

"No idea." I confess. "Perhaps he's cleaning them."

Our thoughts linger on the hunched over old man in his grayish bluish coat, peering through his glasses, steadily polishing golden rods (about 6-8 inches long) without looking up, for a few minutes before our eyes spot something interesting-- an achingly old building with a fading facade that hides tales of eras past. 

A few hours later, tired but excited about being in Beirut, we decide to head back. Without intention or design, we find ourselves on the same road, in Gemmayzeh. The old man's hands are still busy. This time I spot a table laden with jewellery pieces. I am almost tempted. It's getting late and there's always tomorrow. We hail a taxi and leave.
Next morning, we decide to start our exploration from the other end of Beirut (Hamra). The map, which till yesterday had looked like a puzzle, behaves like a friendly guide.  A longish coffee stop and lots of walking later, we find ourselves looking at the old man's table full of  jewellery in Gemmayzeh. It's late afternoon and lunch is on our minds.

"These look good." I declare.

In the freshness of a new day and the familiarity of day two in a new city, the area around the table covered in red cloth reveals more of itself. The table is set out on the front pavement of an old Antique Shop. There is a bright light trying to peep through the cloudy glass of the half open doors. The old man is wearing a brassy ring on his left thumb and using a tool with his right when he looks up and smiles.

"Do you make these?" I ask.

"Yes." His voice is clear and warm, like a glass of fresh milk: soothing and full of life. "I make these."

He walks the short distance from the far corner where his low work bench sits, laden with tools and a twisted brassy sheet, over to us and slides the ring off his thumb.

"It says 'my light' (or did he say 'my love'--I'm not 100 % sure) in Arabic." He says in perfect English and holds the ring up so we can see the light enter the calligraphic carvings on the ring.

"You did this?" Angela and I ask him in unison.

"Yes. You can come and make with me if you want." he offers.

I'm not sure I've heard him correctly. Maybe he doesn't mean that. Maybe he wants to say he'll make one for us just like this one.

I'm doubtful. Surely, he's not going to spend his time teaching us! Surely, he's expecting us to buy something. Odd, how easily cynicism overtakes trust. Why are we programmed to veer towards mistrust as our first instinct?  Is it evolution (survival of the fittest) or just the way the world has come to be?

"What's your name?" we ask.

"Michele." He smiles and disarms my canons of cynicism with his grin.  "And I'm ninety years old." He beams. 

"No!" we almost shriek like teenagers. "Ninety?"

His eyes twinkle a little more brightly. I ask if I can click his picture. Michele obliges like a true gentleman and even poses.
"What's yours?"

"Angela."

"Like the angel." He says and takes Angela's hand while I continue to take  pictures. Angela melts in front of me.
Michele looks up and I give him my name.

He squints quizzically at me.

"Like Art with an I...Arti." I offer an explanation.

He nods and smiles and when he finds out that Angela is from England, he mentions Teresa May.

"This world needs more women leaders...no really. Women are smart."

Who would've thought we'd run into a ninety year old male feminist on the streets of Beirut!

"I was watching a programme on TV about ancient Indian architecture recently, it's so good...so good." adds Michele exuberantly when I mention to him that I'm of Indian stock.

"Yes, India is full of amazing art and architecture." I add and nod. 

It feels part surreal and  part normal to bump into Michele. Human connections such as these is the reason why I love travelling. No monument or museum can live up to simply connecting with another soul. Unless, of course, I'm walking alone in the hills, then I'm happy to be all by myself.

My conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, is that Michele is the most interesting man I've met on my travels in a while. We could've talked the afternoon away, if we wanted to. 

"What were you making yesterday?" Asks Angela. "those spike like things..."

"Come inside the shop, I'll show you..." says Michele and wanders towards the glass door. 

Loud music is blasting  from a corner of the shop. There is stuff everywhere. 

"I haven't had the time to clear up..." he offers an apology and sounds like I do when friends drop in and my house hasn't been dusted! "This is what I made with the spikes..." he points to the light and stands next to it with such a big grin that he looks like a six year old who's just got a 10/10 in his math quiz--absolutely delighted with his work.
"You made this?" We sound like we don't really believe him.

"Yes, and I'm making these to send to my son in Canada. He will use them to make another light like this one." Michele points out the spikes we'd seen him with the previous evening.
If I ever reach ninety, please God, let me be like Michele--working with my hands, open to strangers, warm and kind and curious like a two year old.

I spot a pair of swirly earrings on the table when we step out of his shop. I consider getting them for a friend but decide to wait till I explore a bit more and perhaps come back the next day.

"We should buy a cake for him and go see him again." suggests Angela as we polish off our vegan lunch at the Sursock museum cafe a couple of hours later. 

We haven't stopped talking about Michele. It's been a while since we said bye to him and carried on with our exploration. 

Imagine the stories he'd have to tell. 

What all must he have seen in his life.

He must've put the music that loud so he could hear it outside.

How amazing for us to come across someone like him...

 and on and on.

The one regret I have is that we decided to postpone our cake with Michele idea to the next day. 

Rain and wind and grey skies welcomed us the next morning. We went to the shop. It was shut. It was our last day in Beirut. Our flights back were in the evening.

Sometimes, cakes should be bought and shared as soon as the idea enters our hearts--for one never knows if there will be another tomorrow.

I don't have Michele's number or address. But if anyone in Beirut is reading this and knows him, please give him our love and heartfelt thanks for infusing our weekend trip with his generous smile.

Facades cover buildings, like faces cover souls--what is that old saying again? Never judge a book by its cover.

Better still, never judge.

There were many such kind and helpful humans in Beirut who we encountered in restaurants, shops and even at the farmers market selling their delicious vegan wares. If you're thinking of going to Beirut, I'd say, if you can, then just go. 

Leaving you with a few eclectic shots of facades that caught my eye on the day after Valentine's in the city of Beirut.


 This reminder of 'James and the Giant Peach' (as Angela pointed out) is an old movie theater.

The oft-photographed colourful steps on Armenia Street of Beirut
Wishing you all a colourful, warm, creative, chilled-out kinda weekend. 
May you take notice of every moment of today and tomorrow and 
may you smile when you do. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

February is here

It's been a long break from blogging this time; more than two months. Two whole months of not penning down thoughts or sharing any photos here. Why? I really don't know. 

I've been in a confused state lately--unsure, muddled, questioning every thing, not finding my heart in anything I do. I do it all but there is a part of me that seems to be watching me doing it, like I'm not in the act of living my day to day, like I'm a spectator of my own life, like everything around me is an illusion and I'm supposed to be somewhere else, like my days are happening under water, submerged, unclear, unsure--I can see and hear it all like a scene from a film in a theater, but I'm not part of it, like there's a distance between my senses and what's going on around me, like there's wool filling the gap between life and me, like I'm sort of removed from it all.

Why?

I'm not sure.

All is well. The children are well and healthy. The husband and I are happy and healthy. 

Do you, dear reader, go through cycles of doubt and woolliness when there is no apparent reason for it?

A lot of astronomical phenomenons are keeping the skies busy this week. So perhaps, it's the celestial cycles that are responsible. Or perhaps, it's the useless pandering of a person who has too much time on their hands. 

"Your life has to be bigger than you." an old school friend who I was seeing after more than 25 years last week, said to me.

His words got me thinking even more haphazardly.  What does it mean to live life bigger than me?  

Is keeping a loving home where children grow up to be good human beings enough to qualify me as someone who's lived her life well? Should I have invented something unique, written a great novel, painted a masterpiece, managed a business or saved a life to call my life 'successful'?

Did my grandmother ever feel like I do? Did she ever question if she was doing enough? Did their generation feel lost every now and then?

"Only when you're lost, can you find the way." A wise saying I'd read a while ago pops into my head.

So is feeling lost a good thing?

Do people who feel lost find their way or do they end up getting even more lost?

I look at my husband who works hard to provide for his family every day. He is so clear with what he wants from life and how he's going to do it. I wish I was more like him. But I'm not. 

I'm not sure how long this phase of mine will last, maybe it's already coming to an end--I'm sitting down at my kitchen table and writing today.
I look through old photos I've yet to sort through and the one above catches my eye and makes me laugh. Sometimes, the cows of creativity just don't budge. They have other plans.

So, what does one do when such a phase impales you in its icy grip? One steps out. 

I decide to make friends with this woolliness and invite her to sip  tulsi and adrak wali chai with me.

Open kitchen door.
Step out.
Nip tips of holy basil.
Wash its tender leaves in sink.
Water in  pan is almost coming up to a boil.
Plonk leaves in.
Scrape ginger and grate it on a palm sized grater while the water starts bubbling.
(hands feel the heat of the stove)
Oh! forgot pepper...
scramble cupboard door open, pour out a few pepper corns into wooden mortar, crush the corns in a hurry as water is boiling angrily by now and threatening to become vapour if I don't get my act together.
In go the crushed pepper,
followed by tea leaves
add milk
add sugar.
Ah! 
Life is beautiful.

I take my cuppa with me to the front of the house where the morning sun lights up petunias and nasturtiums and the asparagus fern. House and garden sparrows chime their songs in the neem tree. Blooms of Frangipani bob their heads with the breeze. I sit and sip. And wonder if life is already bigger than me.

What more can I ask for?

February, my favorite month of the year, is here. So what if January ended with a flu. So what if this stubborn cough refuses to bid adieu. So what if my plans to write a book are still just plans. February is here and look what promises it brings:

Tomatoes will soon start to blush and before long, they'll drape scarlet dupattas to let us know they're ready to be picked.
We've already eaten aaloo-methi (methi from the garden) twice this fortnight. Fenugreek greens show off their white blooms. 
Calendula sprinkle sunshine wherever they bloom
Soil and sun fill these beauties with fire. I've used a couple to make coriander chutney (Coriander Chutney Recipe) which goes amazingly well with methi ki roti (fenugreek bread).
Baby figs flatter my gardening ego:)
Life is beautiful indeed.

And just like that, the woolliness of January dissipates.

I'm not looking for a bigger-than-me-life at the  moment. Life: normal, ordinary and mundane will do me fine.

No, this is not an excuse to be lazy. Or at least I don't think so. It's like tuning into my rhythm. I would like to write that book. And I will. There--I've said it. My first February confession. I'm owning up to my dreams and saying it out loud. I reckon it's the first step in the right direction. 

It's not easy to bring discipline into something that one does which is not satisfying the ego, or making money or being noticed. Walking, practising yoga, meditation, writing and gardening  all fall by the way side when woolliness sets in. The funny thing is that those are the very things. i.e. walking, writing, yoga, gardening  and meditation that help clear out the cob webs of self-doubt.
There's never just one way of looking at things. Right?

Your way of dealing with your doubts will be different from mine. But, I'll share what works for me anyway--when self-doubt raises its tentacles to trap me, I fight it back by simply saying 'well done' to myself for accomplishing day to day chores: a pat for each job done with love --lunches packed for husband and son, dishes washed, kitchen cleaned, laundry sorted, a few pictures clicked, a few chapters read, a cupboard shelf/drawer re-organised--basically any task. No task or act is too small or too insignificant to be noticed and appreciated. 

By the time noon bells chime, I've collected so many well dones for myself that I'm beaming again--ready to welcome my men back from school and office with a hot meal and a ready ear to listen to how their day went by.

This is important. This self-help is essential. 

A friend posted this recently--
"The deep roots never doubt spring will come,"
Marty Rubin.
I try to cobble together this post and promise myself that however loud the voice of resistance is, I will sit and write everyday--a few lines, a page, a poem or perhaps a story, but I will live my life fully by doing things that make me me. I will write and harvest the greens and plant more seeds, and go for long walks and listen to Sufi songs and while I'm doing all this, I'll pat my back and tell myself--"well done for living your ordinary well."


And wherever you are and whatever you're doing or planing to do, do take half an hour out of your busy day to sip a cup of tea/coffee/hot water and sit and stare. Doubts and certainties, pauses and starts are tides of life. They come and they go. 
Sonia (above) sells tea on top of this stunning canyon near Shillong (Meghalaya). It's called Laitlum. A couple of other photos in this post are from there too, clicked in October 2017.

Wishing you all a fabulous February:)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Mawphlang: of sacred groves, monoliths and promises.

But before you enter the sacred grove,
Take off the cloak, the mask, the camouflage.
Bring in the real you--
bare and brilliant
single and sufficient
older than time
younger than the last breath
timeless
formless
no body
no mind
no iffs
no buts
no good
no bad
no likes
no dislikes
no memories
no plans
no past
no future
no family
no friends
no ties
no loose ends
no laughter
no sadness
no highs
no lows
still
calm
eternal

a drop in the ocean
an ocean within a drop

Like a ripple seeking its shore

Come ...

meet your shore

He's been waiting for you all his life too.
More than four weeks ago, I found myself in this sacred grove: 
an old and protected forest in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, 
standing guard to the village of Mawphlang--
maw means stone, maw phlang: grassy stone.
A village, like many in this region, named after monoliths.
"Our Ancestors promised the Guarding Spirits of this land that we'd never build any houses near this forest, that we'd never take anything from the forest, that this piece of land is for the Spirits to roam and live. This is the promise our Elders made and we keep."
Basha, our guide, our soft spoken Khasi guide tells us.  
"This is where everything is prepared for the coronation.
Only the King and the Elders go on to the coronation from here.
The rest of the people wait here.
If the Elders forget to take anything they need for the coronation, they can not come back to fetch it. This is the place they must prepare before they carry on."
Basha continues.

I feel like I've stepped into the world of the Round Table and any minute now, King Arthur will appear.
This is where the coronation takes plays, says Basha, our guide with soulful eyes.
He speaks so softly, I have to still my thoughts to hear his words.
His pools of honey eyes gaze upon the trees, the moss, the mushrooms, the branches and the stones
like this is the first time he's stepped inside this scared place.
Listen...






The lime tree with his regal spikes
And its fruit that the birds ate...

Basha seems to know every inch of this almost 80 hectares of forest --
a sacred place: you take NOTHING from this forest
and even when you enter, you enter with good intentions.
No trees are cut, no branches felled, no fruit is picked, nothing is taken
but somehow the forest gives and gives.




There's a presence in this grove:
Ancient and Wise--
like a portal,
He beckons you
to step into the forest
and leave the jungle behind,
move towards a stillness
and cast the mad rush aside.
Basha, like many Khasi youth, is always there to show you around the Sacred Grove.
This symbiosis of man and earth:
of promises made and kept--
protected trees
 and sacred souls--
makes me wonder
why the rest of the us can't be more like the people of Mawphlang?

Step into this reminder of what we were really meant to be,
and how far away we have wandered.
Are we lost?
Is it time to head home?
Let's take the first step.
To be home.
To be.
Have a beautiful weekend.




Friday, September 29, 2017

For the love of Sarees

"Who took out clothes from my cupboard?" our mother's voice carried the threat of a severe telling off, perhaps even a whack.

Seema and I froze in our tracks, or more like in the act of finishing off a Social Studies or Science homework while sitting at the dining table.

We looked at each other like Scully looks at Mulder in X files: baffled and amazed at how did she know?

How did our mother know by just opening her cupboard door that we'd been in it? What are these extra terrestrial powers that our mother possesses? I often mulled over it but never cracked the mystery until I became a mother of children old enough to take things out of wardrobes and cupboards. Like a Ninja with extra sensory powers, I can suss out if my wardrobe has had a looking into by my children. Even if all they've done is opened the door and shut it--I know. How?

Mothers know. They just do.

"Switch on the light before you go blind in the dark." came the next missile from her room to our ears.

Her words bore evidence of her rising temper.

We knew our mother's temper and we didn't like to see it ever, but we often did. And that was that.

I pushed my chair back and flicked the white electric switch on. The tube-light blinked a couple of times before it decided to shed its light to us. We sat, Seema and I, in the fluorescent light, waiting for more missiles to reach us. We were nine/ten or ten/eleven years old at the time.

Evening Arati (prayers) sounded out on the loudspeaker of the temple near our house. It was Wednesday. The time was a little after seven pm. Less than an hour for Chitrahaar to start.

We had to be really, really good and really, really fast. We had to make sure we could watch TV at 8 without any of Mummy's daant dapkaar (telling off) interfering with our mid-week TV mazaa (joy).  She was really, really upset we'd messed up the neatly folded petticoats and blouses in her cupboard. We'll have to worry about the silk sarees which Seema and I had tried on and kept back in the trunk in the store room with extra care and precision, using the fold creases as guides, later. The cupboard situation had to be dealt with now before we lost the half an hour of TV magic--the only mid-weak television we were interested in when we were growing up. No, we never complained about our limited viewing options. We felt privileged to enjoy this mid-week treat.

Too many choices make us whiny.

"Mummy, shall I make the rotis now or when Daddy comes?" One of us extended the olive branch.

Our mother kept a very clean and tidy house and even cleaner and tidier cupboards. Any infringement upon her neat and tidy kingdom was dealt with appropriately: i.e. severe telling off while the songs of Chitrahaar were on. She never took away our TV privileges. Funny! Perhaps it never occurred to her.

We were her obedient and submissive subjects. We, too, liked to keep the house in order and our cupboards tidy. But we also liked to raid her cupboards and trunks and try out her sarees when she left us home alone to go to the market or to visit friends and family. But we always put everything back as neatly and as precisely when we were done dressing up. How she figured out our trespasses when she got back home was a mystery to us.

Our saree soiree would start as soon as we heard the clink of metal on metal--metal latch closing shut on metal gate--announcing Mummy's departure. Safe and free for a couple of hours, we'd pull out a couple of her sarees and start. Sometimes, when there wasn't much time, we'd forgo the petticoat and just tie a naada (drawstring) around our waists and start tucking.

We had a few favourites: the Coca-Cola Banarsi silk with silver butis (flowers) and a silver woven border, the Grass Green Japani (I don't know what the fabric was, but we knew it as Mummy's Japani saree) with white leaves embroidered into it, the Yolk Yellow silk with a hand painted border and my absolute favourite--the Multi-Coloured Chiffon with Sequins. That saree had the potential to zap me into a princess. "One day soon, the people of my kingdom will come looking for me and plead for me to come back."
Fantasy?
No. Simply, saree magic.

We would lose ourselves in her sarees. Time would stand still and evaporate suddenly. Like a sparkle of sun on still water, we'd be mesmerized by her sarees and just like that--in a blink of a sparkle--it would be time to wrap up: tidy away all evidence and resume whatever we were doing before the interlude so that when Mummy got back home, she'd think we had been doing homework etc. for all the time she'd been away.

The mistake we had made on this occasion was that we'd forgotten it was Chitrahaar day, so there was no time for her to cool down! Lesson learnt for future raids.
Sarees are time machines.

Every time I drape a saree, the exact moment of its purchase, the place I bought it at or the person who gave it to me as a present or bought it for me, emerges like a pattern. It wraps me in its threads of memories and the feelings I'd experienced that first time I'd laid my eyes on it: thrill, joy, love cocoon me for the rest of the day. Ask any saree lover. They'll tell you.

Yes, a saree is a time machine: soft as cotton, smooth as silk, fluid and graceful and liberating and yet holding within its folds that first moment in time when humans created a piece of cloth to drape their bodies. A saree is, after all, just a piece of un-stitched cloth.
Sungudi sarees drying on parched Vaigai in Madurai
The year was 1992. I was twenty-one and poor, trying to make ends meet. I had graduated from Delhi University less than a year ago.

I'd found a job. A good job with a poor salary.

British Airways (India) was holding a long drawn selection process to interview, re-interview fresh graduates for employment. I had applied. If I got the job, my salary would multiply by four! I'd become non-poor. I was very excited. But BA's selection process was never ending: it had taken eight months already.

Currently, my meager salary covered the rent (as that had to be paid at the start of the month) but ran out before the month was over. So food bills dwindled to basic bread and milk for the last week of every month.

My friends'  homes became my weekend refuge where their mothers would feed me yummy home cooked (Punjabi or Kannada) food at the weekends. I wasn't starving but I didn't have the extra cash to source a new outfit for each new round of interview/group discussion BA (India) deemed necessary for us to clear just so we could prove our worth. This was India in the early nineties. It wasn't easy to find a well paid job as a graduate. It's even harder now.

Every round I cleared seemed like a miracle. I dared to dream of having enough money to eat well on all the days of the month.

Then I received a letter informing me that I had one LAST interview to attend. The panel would consist of BA's top shots.

I had to dress to impress. My work wardrobe of khaadi kurtas and jeans wouldn't work. I had manged to buy a really lovely indigo salwaar kameez in Kamla Nagar from a pataree waalla (sidewalk hawker) for 120 rupees for my previous interview. AND it had worked. They wanted me back for another interview. BUT, I had no more money to spare.

I was at Anu's house the weekend after I received the letter and I was, as usual, trying to figure out what to do. Perhaps, borrow a saree from aunty (her mother). I had borrowed a gorgeous Mysore Silk from Asha's mother a few months ago for a preliminary round of interview. Borrowing was certainly an option. Things always have a way of working out.

"Tu chal mere naal." You come with me, said Anu's mom.

"Kahan?" I asked.

Aunty was already at the door.

"Bachhee ka interview hai--achchee see saree mein jayegee, aisi thoina bhejoongi apnee betee ko."
My child has an interview. She has to go looking her best. She's my daughter after all.
Said aunty as she pulled at the glass door of the handloom shop in Karol Bagh.

She chose a beautiful Carrot Pink (gaajjaree) Bengal cotton saree for me. She bought blouse material from a tiny shop nearby and lent me her petticoat.

Anu and I were in college together. Aunty (Anu's mom) was an educator and a widowed mother who had to manage her finances very, very carefully to ensure her three children got the best education India had to offer. She didn't have spare cash lying around. She had an extremely generous heart.

Aunty died after a long period of Alzeihmers' a few years ago. In the busyness of career and children, I didn't visit her as often as I should have.

But, even today, her saree wraps me in her warmth. I can see her twinkling eyes and taste the gobhi ke paranthe she used to make on Sunday mornings. The time machine of her saree takes me back to Karol Bagh in 1992 and I can hear her throaty chuckle as clearly as the day she paid the bill for a pink Bengal cotton so that I could go for an interview feeling my best.
******
I'd love to hear your favourite saree/garment  memories. So, If you're willing to, please share. And I'll share images of these beautiful women I've had the pleasure of exchanging smiles, laughs and stories with on my recent travels in India.
She hitch-hiked a (bullock cart) ride with us in Tanjavore.
She'd worked all day at a construction site and was making her way back home.
It's a hard life. She works to support her children so that they can get a good education.
And still she smiles.
Ma Saraswati drapes her favourite white and plays the veena in Brihadeeswarar temple, Tanjavore.
Rural folk don't waste time. They are quick to smile and even quicker to talk to you. And this group of ladies (from Andhra Pradesh on a pilgrimage to Brihadeeswarar) demanded that I take their pictures and show them the results on the display screen. 
"Stand straight!" I felt that's what was being said by the leader--I wouldn't know. 
I don't understand Telugu.
I was just very, very happy to follow instructions:)
Don't miss the little fellow on the right...how adorable is he?
They drew me into their smiles and colours and as I type this, I beam with the memory of those moments shared with strangers. 
Strangers?
Such a pretentious word that is.
Connected. All of us. Just open up and see.
 Anklets and Kasavu (a traditional off white cotton saree from Kerala--with a gold border)
Madras check and jasmine in hair.
Marwari ladies who've adopted Tamil Nadu as their home and speak fluent Tamil.
I asked and they agreed to be photographed.
Meenakshi Temple, Madurai.
The year 2017 started with a trip to Kutchch and it continues to colour me in all shades of India. I'm loving it and for the sake of saree lovers among you, I will put a post together about where-to-shop-for-sarees-in-India, soon. 
And while the weaver dreams of new patterns to weave on his loom...
I'd like to wish you all a life full of colour and warmth and light and love.
And as we celebrate Shakti,
I pray:
 May all of our days be Dusshera.
And all our moments reminders:
of the victory of good over evil,
of humanity
and 
of peace.
Thank you to all the goddesses who've been my life's blessings.
Photos taken at Dakshin Chitra, Chennai.