koi sonder

One day during a particularly windy bike ride, I stopped to catch my breath. Riding against the wind even if the terrain is flat can be hard. I watched the windy skies blowing the fluffy cirrus clouds away, and said aloud that it would be nice for some rain. The husband gave me that look he reserves for my references to eucalyptus, rain and all things Nilgiris. “You and your rain!”

But the universe has a strange way of granting wishes sometimes. A day or two later, the temperatures dipped, a cold spell gripped the area, and I sat up around midnight watching the rain pelt the windows. It was beautiful to watch in the warmth of our homes. I felt a blast of warm air from the air purifier in the room and sent a little note of gratitude for warmth and security when it must’ve been cold and wet outside. 

A few days ago, we had visited a quiet spot tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Bay Area freeways, and turned in past the almond farms into a quaint garden and farm. There, in the corner was a small koi pond with koi fish whose size looked magnified several times given the size of the pond itself. The fish swam towards where we were standing peering into the waters.

The curiosity of these creatures 🙂 If I knew Koi-polese, I could’ve translated. But I think they wanted to know more us: Who were these people who are peering at us? Would they be kind enough to feed us? 

I thought of Dr Dolittle:

These fish languages, they really only work underwater. It’s fascinating! The basic system is mouth movements and bubbles signals.

Dr Dolittle

For some reason, that night looking at the rain against our the windows, I thought of the koi fish peering out of the waters and contemplating the gathering clouds. How they would react to the gentle rains falling from the skies? Would their sea brethren feel the same way when they navigated the oceans? I remembered reading an article in the New York Times about how the fish used stars and starlight to navigate the oceans. Polar bears and many creatures do so too. How do they fare when the cloudy skies 🌌 obscure their vision?

“Did you know that an ant has more intelligence than a hippopotamus? And that a grasshopper, in relation to his size, has more power in his hind legs than a kangaroo. Absolutely, fascinating! There’s no doubt about it, animals are much more interesting than people.”

Dr Dolittle

There is a word that captured my fancy when I read it, for I have often felt that especially when traveling. (Grocery shopping in Afghanistan post) . 

sonder (the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own).

That night I felt that word with respect to all our fellow creatures. We have no Dr Dolittles among us to know the extent of our fellow creatures feelings. But we do know we have many creatures around us show feelings of warmth, love, clannishness and so forth. 

Almond Blossoms to Cake

“Hmm….is that badam cake?”. (Badam is the Tamil name for Almond) The son’s nose whiffed and sniffed rapturously as he came home from school. I laughed at his reaction. The heavenly scents of ghee, almonds, milk, cardamom, and sugar have felled many a strong heart. No wonder celestial offerings have this combination of aromas the world over. I nodded and the little fellow ran inside. His grandmother handed him a warm piece of badam cake, and his eyes shone. His mouth watering, he gave her a hug, and knowing how his grandfather must’ve been the one who stirred the mixture for hours to get it to this consistency gave him a hug too.

Then he bit into it slowly: relishing, licking, savoring the cake in his hands, he danced a little jig. 

Relishing badam cakes is a family tradition I think. Across the length and breadth of the family tree, you will find people who melt in anticipation of badam cake. The nephews, nieces, son, daughter, their parents and grandparents all smack their lips when the very name is mentioned. The grandmothers treasure the almonds more than diamonds.

A couple of days later we went on a short drive. The drive through the green hills of California was enough to raise the spirits of everyone in the car. The view of the rolling hills of the Bay Area is best in late winter and early spring. All around us is resplendent green tugging at the heart strings of poets to take up that muse of the alluring verdure. But, there are bounties waiting the moment you reach the plains too: fields of almond trees in rows and rows spread over acres like one of those 3-d models that mesmerize you in their symmetry and movement. In early spring, the almond trees are in full bloom. Watching the brilliance of their white snowy blossoms even non-poets feel their heart strings tug.

It is no wonder that Van Gogh and thousands of artists on this beautiful planet looked to almond blossoms as inspirations in their work. It is stunning. Vincent Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother as he worked on his famous Almond Blossoms painting:

I am up to my ears in work for the trees are in blossom, and I want to paint a Provençal orchard of astonishing gaiety.

Van Gogh
Almond Blossoms by Vincent van Gogh – Image from Wikipedia – using Wikimedia Commons

Grown in France, Spain, Iran and California, almonds occupied prime real estate in the nourish-n-cherish childhood home. We had sturdy Godrej cupboards of yore for valuables. Other families stashed gold, silver, diamonds etc: ours had almonds and cashews.

Soaked, peeled with glee ( you could pop the almonds out of their skin after soaking, and several of them would escape and flee across the tables), ground, and then stirred with ghee, sugar and cardamom, this is a delicacy alright.

The son and I watched the trees in quiet symmetry zoom past our windows. Beautiful fields full of trees, quietly standing in the Californian soil doing all the hard work of blooming, sprouting and growing. How I wish we could learn from trees. How they go about the business of living and enabling living for creatures such as we: sans fanfare, yet with complete grace and majesty. A stoic patience underlying their vibrance; their steady creation the backbone of life on this planet. 

almond fields California

I thought of the happy faces of the nourish-n-cherish household when we see the badam cakes each time. That godly moment of sliding the cake into the mouth – all starting with the astounding wondrous work of the almond flowers in bloom outside the window. It makes us pause and appreciate all that is takes to satisfy the human palette, doesn’t it? 

Mingling Starlight in our Lives

Humanity has been in that strange place of being where our sentience allows us to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, while still being stumped and awed by the chaos and complexities of nature.

A week ago, I said bye to my family and boarded the plane. Airports must always bear the brunt of human emotions. I sat on the plane, and the tears came coursing down. I was so desperate for my dear friend’s life. I had been in denial – there was no doubt. I knew she had cancer and she was stoically, bravely fighting the Emperor of Maladies for over two years now. But I hadn’t realized how far it had gotten. I could not reconcile my friends’ vibrant, energetic, intelligent image in my mind with the one I saw a few days earlier. This girl, without whom I cannot imagine my childhood(the one who would brave anything for you), was fighting for her life. 

Almost every important memory had her in it. A shining presence with her light of being – science lab, sports fields, classes, our home, the lanes of Lovedale. Boarding school bonds are unique. I had not kept in touch with most folks in my class after moving to the US, but I managed to reconnect with her after a few years. My children teased me every time I got off the phone with her (You have *that* look – they’d say, like you’d been talking to your Lovedale pals) It was true. I could not bring that smile any other time – I’ve tried. It is like the precious memories of childhood are saved in a special location in your brain that is accessible only by certain people, events, experiences, places, tastes, aromas (and odors!). 

It has been a long few days since that flight back to the US. During this time, humanity has once again revealed its marvelous nature of being to us. Human beings as a species are redeemed only by their giving hearts, empathy and love. My dear friend now has a fighting chance and it all came through because of the generosity of many who knew her, and many who didn’t. Most of us had not seen each other or spoken to one another in years. Yet.

It was a privilege to see our collective love for each other surface through time and space and help out one of our own.

A shiver passed through me as I stepped out on a walk, and I inadvertently looked up at the stars. Plaedis cluster, and Orion the big hunter looked unusually bright on that cold, clear night. 

“Mingle the starlight with your lives!”

Maria Mitchell, Astronomer & Professor

I smiled up at the universe thinking of that quote. I had been in the skies (among the stars) when I had sent fervent prayers up for this girl, and the starlight had mingled in with our lives giving us hope again. 

Now, we pray that her body accepts the treatment and she becomes healthy again. 

light shining through the clouds

The Eyes of Covid

I had to leave for India somewhat urgently. The father had mysteriously picked up a strain of Typhoid and Covid, the mother had Covid after days of caring for the former. As can be imagined, it was not the easiest frame of mind in which travel plans were made. Traveling anywhere in the middle of the pandemic is a nightmare. Traveling from the US to the East is never an easy task. So, traveling from the United States to India during the peak of the Omicron variant of the Covid pandemic is doubly painful. I am grateful I was able to make it though. With flights being the way they are, and travel plans being so erratic, travel is to be avoided if possible. However my travel was unavoidable. 

I took care of things like making a pest of myself with the children since I shall be missing them for sometime, returning the books in the library, packing gloves, masks, and Clorox wipes for the old home etc. The husband’s face, in the meanwhile, took on a serious look, and he plunged into the mode of planning and getting the important things done. 

The husband in planning mode is a force to reckon with. Phone calls flew, chat messages scrambled and unscrambled themselves with the might of the Internet’s speed thrown at them. Friends who had recently made the journey were consulted, advice was given, and mysterious packages containing masks of various sizes and shapes were dropped off at the curb by different cars and occupants. Some of them had recently come back from India, and so, masks for long term wear were dropped off.

One mask made me look like a duck, another like a monkey, and the third like a surgeon. Based on popular user experience, the duck incarnation won the round for the flight. The strap went over the head, and was no problem at all throughout. So, off I went, intensely aware of the long journey between my adult and childhood homes. It might’ve taken 80 days to go around the world before air travel. With air travel, it took approximately 32 hours door-to-door.

Boston Science Museum – Dinosaur with Mask

I have always felt that if there was one place that got the full blast of human emotions, it must be hospital corridors, and airports. I was stopped by the security officer who saw my boarding pass to New Delhi airport and started talking to me in Hindi. 

Sab teek hai?” He asked me, a look of concern in his eyes. (It is astounding how much we notice the eyes post-Covid. I wonder whether babies born in Covid times leaped ahead with this skillset). I was a little confused and taken aback at first- but nodded. Intensely aware that not always will this be the case, and grateful that this time it was.

P.S: The parents are recovering well, and the old father has been itching to start his stock marketing, and has been given the green light to do so.

The Journey Not The Destination

There is a saying in Tamil that the old pater evokes every time he hears me rave about my little brother. (Little meaning younger – he ceased to be a little fellow about quarter a century ago, though my friends still ask after ‘my little brother’ much to his amusement.) “Thambiyudaiyan padaikku anjaan” In short it means, one who is blessed with a brother, is blessed with the might of an army. I’ve always felt my brother was more like wings.

When he came, we were ready to take flight and soar. When he was home, home was a place one returned to from our little flights of adventure and fancy. His love of vehicles, not withstanding, he has always been the  one ready to take you out on a ride, whether on his bicycle as a boy, or on his scooter and bike as a young adult, or in his car as an adult. As I moved to the United States, I slowly lost touch with driving in India, and increasingly found myself restricted in movement on my trips to India. He truly became my wings. When he was there, I could take on anything / anywhere.

Road trips with the brother have acquired a legendary status over the years, because he, like the father, has acquired the knack of peppering the trip with snacks – the right delicacies at the right time.

This time, the trip was not a pleasure one. I had flown down to help the old parents. As my trip was nearing an end, the brother came home (having recovered from Covid himself in the past few weeks) as a surprise.

He said we’d go out one evening, and I felt the stirring of the spirits once again. The roaring of adventure in the ears. A few miles from our urban home, he spun his wheels in what he calls off-roading. I had only vaguely heard the term. His eyes rove for unbeaten paths, muddy side roads and often roads that no one prefers. The first time, he did this, I was not prepared, since he somewhat abruptly swung off the road and bumped off most unceremoniously into a muddy path by the roadside. I clutched whatever I could, and rattled off a prayer cum expletive that had the brother and nephew laughing. What was this? Before I knew it, he had the car in a ditch, and it did not look possible to get it out of there. As much confidence as I had in the spirit of adventure with the fellow, this time, it seemed, we were done for. 

The nephew, all of a decade old, said ‘Athai! ‘ using a tone meant to soothe and calm irrational patients. “Don’t worry – this car can do….” He went on to rattle some statistics on torques, elevation gains and things that sent my head reeling. I looked at the little fellow, and felt a gurgle of laughter slip through the panic: I heeded it and laughed.  This apple fell right next to the tree alright. This was exactly what his father as a little fellow did. I remember the old pater trooping home from bookstores in far flung corners of whichever city he had visited, and we all made a beeline to see what he picked up for us. The little brother’s eyes always lit up with the old Auto magazines he had picked up from used book stores for him. He would spend rainy afternoons reading about the cars, their makes, their engine powers, their capacity. The joke in the household was that we could set him up with a Cycle Mart or an Auto Mart, and his life would be fine.

The bucolic scenes that reveal themselves in these off-roading experiences are amazing. One time, we positioned our phones to click a number of goat kids bleating atop a knoll when this lady came out of  her hut. The smile she gave us afterwards was priceless. 

Clucking hens, and goat kids seem almost magical in the early evening.

Evening scenes of women making their way home with firewood on their heads, or goats and cows ambling back home against the rural landscape set the pace differently from the rushing automobiles, and folks honking homewards in urban scapes just a few miles away.

Off-roading in poramboke lands means you get to see arid stones and rocks, or patches thriving in vegetation, and not really knowing what you would see.

He stopped to watch the sunset, and there in the distance was a peacock.  

It was pure coincidence that we caught this peacock take flight into the sunset and that I managed to capture the picture. Mostly, by the time I fumble for the phone, and click, the birds have not only gone, in the art of fumbling, I miss both the photograph and the wonderful sight of the bird taking flight as well. This time, I caught both. Life shows you moments of joy and luck, every so often to remind us of the magic of serendipity.

“Serendipity will take you beyond the currents of what is familiar. Invite it. Watch for it. Allow it.” 

 Jeanne McElvaney

When we trooped back into the home, the parents asked us where we’d been, and we had no destination to name. Sometimes, it is just the journey.

The Physics of Space & Time

The husband and I have been married for 20 years now.  Plans were great. Let’s go on a trip to the mountains, by the lakeside, near the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Instead what happened was that the phone calls flew over the mountains, past the lakes and through the oceans as we reminisced the 20 years together. I had to come to India to look after the old parents, and the husband was making calls everyday to ensure I had the right masks, the right tests, and the right flights. 

While the day turned out to be a special one anyway with loved ones calling and making it a special one, I found myself reveling in the words of James Baldwin:

James Baldwin on long distance love

“Pretend, for example, that you were born in Chicago and have never had the remotest desire to visit Hong Kong, which is only a name on a map for you; pretend that some convulsion, sometimes called accident, throws you into connection with a man or a woman who lives in Hong Kong; and that you fall in love. Hong Kong will immediately cease to be a name and become the center of your life. And you may never know how many people live in Hong Kong. But you will know that one man or one woman lives there without whom you cannot live. And this is how our lives are changed, and this is how we are redeemed.

What a journey this life is! Dependent, entirely, on things unseen. If your lover lives in Hong Kong and cannot get to Chicago, it will be necessary for you to go to Hong Kong. Perhaps you will spend your life there, and never see Chicago again. And you will, I assure you, as long as space and time divide you from anyone you love, discover a great deal about shipping routes, airlines, earth quake, famine, disease, and war. And you will always know what time it is in Hong Kong, for you love someone who lives there. And love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.”

James Baldwin

It turned out to be propitious indeed that I was in the very city that our wedding took place in, and the husband was in California  – the place we went on to make our home together. As James Baldwin so eloquently put it, ‘we simply had no choice but to go into battle with space and time’.  I remember my sister asking me before my wedding what my favorite place was, and somehow I answered ‘California’. I’d never been there, I simply knew the person I loved was there. She threw her head back, laughed and teased me well. I deserved it. Hitherto, I had never missed a heartbeat in saying ‘Lovedale’, and here I was, already switching my answer to a place I had never seen.

As we sat down to a meal that evening, in my parents’ home, the stories of our lives spun its enthralling web around the little table. How we welcomed the wrong bridegroom party at the station all those years ago, only to realize after unloading all the luggage that it was a different wedding party with the same name(!) South Indians, especially of the previous generation could all be gifted a baby book of names, for they named their sons and daughters after their favorite gods and goddesses, and the popular ones studded the streets like stars on a clear night.

The wedding photos that for two decades had not been taken out for a viewing suddenly found itself in demand. I looked at the album to find some loving aunts and uncles no more, some whose rich tree cover had thinned out over time, others whose foliage had turned color in the intervening decades, children who had become adults and went on to get married and set up their own families. 

The march of time maybe relentless, but the memories are timeless.

World Peace

The first part of this article was published in The Hindu titled Collective Effort dated 10th April 2022

I am in India on a short trip. Most evenings, I take a short walk around the apartment complex the parents live in. The community is a middle class community with children playing outside every evening. Regular readers know how much I enjoy seeing children playing outside everyday. One day as I was walking past the play area, I stopped to see what the commotion was all about. Slippers were being thrown as high as little hands could reach, and all the little children were standing around giving instructions. It was then I noticed the two badminton rackets lodged up in the tree branches above (probably a dare since there were two rackets lodged firmly.)

The little band of racket-throwers were now trying to retrieve them from the trees, It is amusing to be a silent spectator to problem solving such as this. Several suggestions were being given by all gathered (Some enthusiastic, but clearly not grounded in laws of Physics. Others, theoretically brilliant but lacking the practical aspects such as the presence of a long 7 ft stick to dislodge the rackets). When it looked like there were close to dislodging the racket by themselves, I carried on, only to come back a few minutes later on my rounds to see that several attempts had yielded nothing. A general despondency had set in, and some gloomy faces stared at the unyielding tree with its branches so ridiculously high above. 

When it was obvious that the little folk could not dislodge the rackets, a small dip in their collective can-do attitude was apparent. Sensing this, the older children playing a little distance away, gathered to help. On my walk as a spectator, this was such a heart warming scene, for I could see the future of humanity secure in this simple act. When one of us suffers a setback, the others came to help willingly without even being asked. The older children had height on their side, and the tallest one lifted a younger child, who then dislodged the racket with a stick lying around. 

The cheers erupted all around. One might’ve assumed that a World Series match was just finished. But this jubilation was a different one altogether and play resumed.

Retrieving rackets from trees!

I wish children played outside on the streets more especially in the United States. I couldn’t help thinking that that motley bunch of children could have a future CEO reimagining the world, a diplomat helping out in times of humanitarian crises, scientists solving problems as deftly and quickly as humanity creates them, artists and writers who dare to dream and imagine a different world, etc. 

Which brings to this excellent book I was reading earlier, World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements. I always think highly of children’s perspectives and potential, so naturally I was attracted to this book. In the book, a fourth grade teacher, John Hunter designed a game to restore World Peace in a mythical world of his creation bearing enormous resemblance to our own. Climate change, wars, humanitarian crises, economic bankruptcies are all problems to be solved in this world.

World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements by [John Hunter]

There are Prime Ministers of countries, nominated by the teacher. There is a World Bank, a weather goddess who controls things like freak climatic disasters, the stock market etc, a United Nations council all ably run by the children in the classroom. There is even a secret saboteur whose main job is to spread lies and sow discord between factions. So they learn to trust but verify, be wary but condone etc. 

He has a 3-D model depicting their world in which the oceans, the lands and the skies above us need governance and international cooperation to achieve World Peace. They are given 50 problems that must all be solved, and the net worth of the countries needs to be higher than when the game started for the game to be won.

He has perfected the game over several years in his classroom, and the results are indeed stunning in some cases as he writes in his book. In most years, the children did manage to solve World Peace in spite of the overwhelming odds stacked against them. Like in the little anecdote above, the children mostly hit upon a solution only after they are that close to giving up altogether. The failure, dejection all slowly yields to a new mode of thinking. One that is difficult to think of before, and this invariably leads the teams to collaborate and help each other better. (As J K Rowling says in her Harvard Commencement Speech – The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination)

TED Talk by John Hunter – 4th Grade Teacher

Truly, what we learn in Elementary School is priceless. The camaraderie accompanying solving problems truly makes the heart lighter. When in the right company, no problem is insurmountable. More importantly, there is hope for this world despite what we have done. 

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