Sunday, February 28, 2016

Gobi Chronicles - 1


The very name brings a smile to the faces of the descendants of the Vembathi clan.  The years spent as children in our grandfather Vembathi Subramaniya Iyer’s house remain as cherished memories in our minds. My mother and her sisters would come together during vacations and all of us cousins would run wild in its premises. The very atmosphere in the house was one of affection, inclusion, generosity and kindness. This is felt not only by those who share thatha’s gene pool but also by those who are associated with the family by marriage. My own husband may drive me nuts on a number of issues but is in total agreement on my opinion of the ‘unique’ family that the Vembathi clan happens to be. Sons and daughters in law of three generations have become an integral part of our family and that speaks well of the interpersonal relationships that we share. This was possible not only because of the great human being that thatha was and also because of my maternal uncle Krishnamurthy mama and his wife Kamakshi Mami who carried forward the legacy of a rich culture that he left behind. Could Krishnamurthy mama's children have been different? They are as dear to us as their parents and welcome us with the same warm affection that their mother exuded sixty years back. Is it any wonder that I look forward to a visit to Gobi like a daughter visiting her maternal home or that my eyes well up when I leave the place? Yes, I may be a grandmother now but till date I cannot prostrate at my uncle’s feet without experiencing a lump in my throat. 

The following is the first of my posts on life in Vembathi House and I dedicate it to my Mami’s memory.

I remember very few details of my mama’s wedding that took place in June 1956. I remember playing in the sand in front of a huge ‘pandal’ as a five year old and also being admonished for calling Kamakshi Mami by name. Since mama was the youngest sibling, everyone called his wife by name. I must have thought that I could do so too. But my earliest memory of Kamakshi Mami is of a kind faced lady who welcomed us with a smile whenever we visited them. I don’t remember her talking directly to my father or other male members in those early years. But her body language was such that one felt at home immediately. Her interactions with my mother and her sisters (5 of them) was always balanced. They were much older than her. In fact my oldest aunt was 20 years older than her and she once confided to me that she had mistaken my aunt to be her mother in law and it was only after marriage that she realized that she was the oldest sister in law. I don’t remember a single instance when she got into a controversy or trouble with them. She might have had her opinion on family matters but she never openly voiced them always choosing to remain neutral. That was perhaps the best way to maintain a cordial relationship with five older sisters in law. My grandfather loved her like a daughter and she absolutely deserved his affection. 

If Kamakshi Mami had no mother in law to domineer over her, our maid Moopachi doubled up for one. She had a loud voice and having worked for our family for several years she could up pull up the cook for his lack of culinary skills and complain about his coffee that tasted like ‘gutter water’. She would scream at her grandchildren, who would come along to help her, if their work was shoddy. She could shout at anyone of us if she felt that we were not doing our bit. She considered the house as her own and exercised her authority on all of us. It seems that in the early years of her marriage Mami would remain in her room till Moopachi left, for fear of being admonished, although Moopachi was nice to her.

Those were days when daughters left their older children with their parents and Vembathi House was no exception. So when Mami arrived on the scene four or five of my cousins in their primary and middle schools were already studying in Gobi. The children would quarrel and fight. She took care of their needs without a frown on her face and remained so even when years later my widowed mother relocated to Gobi with five children and continued to stay on even after my grandfather’s death. 

Mami had a good voice that was trained to sing Carnatic music. I can almost hear her sing 
"Pralaya payodhijale"...... an Ashtapadhi that she learnt a little before my marriage in 1973. She was deeply religious and even when she went through patches of bad periods in her life she would never blame God. I used to often hear her say that her devotion to God was perhaps not adequate enough and she might have unknowingly displeased Him. One activity that she enjoyed doing was to decorate the puja mandapam and to fix beads and beautify the silver image of Goddess Lakshmi. She would prefer to read Shankara Kripa or other religious literature rather than Tamil magazines and her social circle included groups that enrolled themselves to learn Abhirami andhadi or slokams.

My father would ask her to sing ‘Ranga pura vihara’ or 'Entharo Mahanubhava' for him when he visited. She would oblige and I remember her sitting behind a half closed door out of respect for my father and singing in a soft voice. Mami once told me that she would find it boring to start music lessons soon after school but her music teacher would be waiting for her when she returned home from school. On one occasion she could not help saying “ ஐயோ பாட்டு வாத்தியாரா?” ( Oh no! Is it the music teacher?). And the teacher heard her. So thereafter he would tease her saying “ஐயோ பாட்டு வாத்தியார் வந்துட்டேன்”. ( oh no! Music teacher has come). 

In the initial years of my marriage, like everyone else, I too had trouble bonding with my acquired family. Mami felt bad that I had been living so far from my maternal ( actually my mother’s ) home and had to deal with my problems on my own. She suggested that mama or someone else should find reasons to visit me more often to offer moral support till I felt more comfortable in my husband’s place. It was not practically possible but I was grateful to her for the suggestion.

It was perhaps the care she gave us that made her dependent on the care of others for the last seventeen years of her life. I so wish it hadn’t been that way. I wish I could have given back at least something of what she had given me. The only thing that I can now do is to pass on the kindness I received from her to others around me. 

Monday, December 07, 2015

What happened to Mehr?

Dear Son,
I feel lost without you to pester me and wish you never had to leave for college. I knew all along that I would have to set you free to carve your future but I feel sad all the same. For all I know you may never be the same person again. You will grow. You will have new friends who will influence your life and your decisions. My head tells me that you will make the right choices and stand tall among your peers but my heart sinks at the possibility of your being vulnerable to the pressures exerted by them. Without us, your parents, to monitor your activities you may feel tempted to think that it is a fashion statement to harass girls even if it is ‘just for fun’. Be warned my child. Your mindless activity may have a very serious outcome as Mehr’s story will indicate.

You know Mehr don’t you? May be you don't. She was my colleague’s only daughter and hadn’t started school when I joined college. In a way I had practically watched her grow. I rejoiced with her mother when she got admission in a prestigious school in our town and regularly followed her progress. I was invited to her ‘Navjot’ party and I remember gifting her a story book because I always felt that books were the most precious of gifts that could be given to a nine year old. 

I don’t know if you have the information that Mehr passed away last night. Her death was caused by three mindless teenage boys who hounded her on the way to school. 

The day dawned like any other day. The chirpy thirteen year old got ready for school, fussed over breakfast and was coaxed to eat by her grandma - this was a routine that the two of them enjoyed - and after wishing her mom and grandma a hasty goodbye left for school on her bicycle. The school was about half a kilometre from home and she expected to reach it well before time. And then trouble began….

The road was lonely and three boys started following her. One of them overtook her and stopped right in front of her while the other two laughed at her predicament from behind. She managed to stop in time and started off once again when another boy took it on himself to whistle and sing a vulgar song while the other two crossed her path from either side. The girl panicked and tried to pick up speed. The school was now in sight and she wanted to reach there fast. There were parents on the other side of the road and it would only take a couple of minutes to reach them. Unfortunately she noticed a rambler at the turning a little too late and slipped while trying to apply brakes. Her head hit the rambler and she lost consciousness.

The rest is history. She suffered a head injury, went into a coma and never recovered. Her mother is in a state of shock and her grandma refuses to believe that her beloved granddaughter is no more. All this happened within minutes of her leaving home and she is unable to come to terms with the tragedy that has befallen them. 

My son, stalking or hounding girls is not funny. Boys may feel powerful and relish the distress that girls are being subjected to. Girls on the contrary go through hell when they face sexual harassment. 

Mehr is no more. Her mother laments that she has nothing to look forward to. Her father seems to have lost his voice and the vacant look in his face speaks volumes of his mental state. All this could have been averted if only the culprits had been sensitized and trained to treat women with respect and I for one believe that values imparted by one’s parents play an important role in shaping one’s conduct. Values like charity begin at home.

I have tried my best to treat you and your sister equally. I have never encouraged you to imagine that you are superior because you are a boy. I expect you to treat all the girls in your class as equals. They need to feel safe and comfortable in your presence and consider you as a dependable friend. I know you will not let me down because I am sure that you too would want not want a repeat of Mehr’s story. All young girls need to feel safe and secure.

I want you to share Mehr's story with your friends. I want you to understand that girls are your friends and need to be treated as cherished companions. I trust you son and I know that you will not let me down.

With lots of love,
Yours affectionately,

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Random Musings

I am nearing retirement. No more extensions of service. Just three months to go and I feel lost already. My workplace doubled up for my social circle and I now realize how much I have drifted away from the Tambrahms in Jamshedpur. I remember the time some twenty five years ago when I would take out the clay figurines from my mother in law's trunk, all wrapped up in newspaper, wipe them clean and arrange them in the shelf of the only bedroom of our modest home and invite neighbors for "golu" during Navaratri. We had quite a few Tamilians in our neighborhood and we'd invite a few Bihari friends as well. It was a simple get together. I would also get invited to Lalitha Sahasranamam Bhajan sessions in the afternoons during Navaratri, 'haldi- kumkum' would be exchanged. We did not have a telephone connection and mobile phones were unheard of. Friends were invited personally with the daughters going from house to house with kumkum containers to extend the invitation. Initially people would be asked to come over on any or all of the nine days of Navaratri but later one restricted the invitation to specific days so that they were free to visit others on the remaining days.

Friends from college were invited home for lunch. We did not own a dining table or fancy cutlery. They gladly squatted on the floor and enjoyed a typical Tambrahm meal, were treated to filter coffee and a stroll in the neighboring park. I suffered no complex or inhibitions and was happy to be just 'myself '.

Then times changed. I decided to pursue my studies and enrolled myself for a Masters program in a local college and my excellent results prompted me to register for Ph.D. The subject of my Ph. D thesis was an annual crop that grew around Navaratri season. Thereafter Navaratri celebrations were shelved and the "golu bommais" - clay figurines that my mother in law had carefully preserved for years and my own addition to the lot each year were shifted to the loft and have remained there ever since we moved to our three bedroom apartment. I still got invited for "golu" but with old friends having left town or relocated elsewhere and not being acquainted with newcomers I seem to know fewer and fewer people. And all this when I can now connect through mobile phones and social/virtual apps.

But that was not the reason. I seemed to be happy socializing with my friends in college and was equally happy to relax at home during the puja break. But this Navaratri I seem to miss my initial days in Jamshedpur. Of course I do my bit by giving gifts of bangles and bindis to little girls in my neighborhood and visiting elderly ladies to seek their blessings. But with modest means I seemed to have derived more satisfaction then, even if it was just "sundal" wrapped in newspaper that I distributed. All the ziplock bags and aluminum foils that I can now afford seem meaningless.

While folding clothes this evening I was in an introspective mood and found myself wondering what I had gained or lost over the years. I hold on to expensive silk saris that I haven't worn in years knowing full well that my children would dump them without a thought. Maintaining them is a responsibility. But each of those are either reminders of the occasion of their purchase or I am reminded of the person who gifted them to me.

I feel that I was perhaps wrong in excluding myself from a social life that involved person to person interaction during festive occasions like Navaratri. This was a tried and tested method that was the lifeline of society and the only method of socializing particularly for women who were mainly homemakers. It also brought out their creativity and one was treated to colorful rangolis, bhajans and of course yummy snacks! I truly want to start organizing " golu" again. I wonder if it's too late in the day to revive the practice. No harm trying isn't it?

Happy Navaratri to all of you!

Sunday, February 08, 2015

My Style

This post is my entry for the blogger contest by Women's Web and Trishla eMart to describe a Style of My Own. 

When I look back and remember the years gone by I see that I haven't changed much as far as my style is concerned. I always preferred clothes that were comfortable to wear, easy to maintain and did not strain my purse. As for accessories I prefer to admire them from a safe distance and I have always been in awe of those who can wear earrings that look more like pendants and still feel comfortable enough to carry on normal conversation with those around them. If I ever wore anything expensive I would constantly worry about its safety and miss out all the fun associated with the event. Therefore the diamond earrings that my mother gave were hardly worn as long as she was alive and after she passed away I wore them for a few months for sentimental reasons and put them away because I felt that I would not only lose them to earring snatchers but would gift them parts of my earlobes as well. I think I should give up writing about 'My Style' because you may ask what is so stylish about wearing common everyday clothes. But I don't give up easily and here is a list of what I like or do not like, and I hope that my style would emerge from such a list. So here I go!

I have told you already that comfortable clothes top my list so crisp cottons are my choice any day and anytime. Even among cottons handlooms from any part of India would top my list. Be it saris, salwar kameez or nightwear I am not a great fan of floral prints. Stripes, dots, checks, traditional embroidery are all welcome. Zari - pure or otherwise are not for me.

Pure silk has a grace and beauty of its own but I feel that it's elegance is lost when it has a heavy Zari border and/ or pallu. The focus has to be on the silk so I would go for lightly embroidered silk or silk with small Zari dots and a thin line or two of Zari as a narrow border. Mysore silk would be my first choice and Kanjeevaram would be the next. Printed silk from Murshidabad or Bhagalpur also makes one feel good.

Coming to hairstyle I have almost no hair left so I cannot say much. Last year I visited America and my granddaughters got together and coaxed me to leave my hair loose. They straightened it using a gel and ordered me to leave it alone. I felt so uncomfortable that I couldn't wait to tie it up into a small ponytail. This is in contrast to what I preferred as a schoolgirl when I wanted to leave my long hair loose and my mother would have none of it. She would try different styles of plaiting it but it had to be braided - never left loose.

Thinking of my childhood reminds me of a photograph of me as a sixteen year old in which I couldn't recognize myself. It was taken at the farewell of the teacher of the tailoring school that I attended for a short time before joining college. I had worn jhumkas and a mattal to support the pair of heavy earrings that I was wearing. The mattal is a small chain that is fixed to the earring on one side and has a hook that is fixed to the hair above the earlobe. My mattal had beads too. I was also wearing a long chain with a heavy pendant. So whatever I may say, there was a time in my life when I dressed up for an occasion. Not that don't dress for an occasion now. I do. But it is more out of respect for the occasion and less for myself.

At my age however I prefer salwar kameez to saris for casual wear. There are a group of people whom I meet during my morning walk who had never seen me in a sari. They once saw me in a sari at a temple and said that I ought to wear a sari more often. I had to tell them that I wear a sari to college on every working day and had been wearing saris since my college days. I switched over to salwar kameez after I tripped and fell a couple of times during my morning walk.

As for footwear no high heels for me although with my less than five feet height I should be wearing heels. These days I like durable and comfortable footwear to fancy ones but I admit to having tried fancy ones in my hostel days including high heeled and pointed toed slip ons.

To end I would say that my style is to look presentable and feel comfortable. I can wear almost no jewelry with minimum make up and walk among decked up dolls feeling confident and self assured. That way I need not worry about spilling stuff on a dress or wonder if my hair is messed up or my kohl/eyeliner smudged. I cannot understand why a person would want a new outfit for every special occasion or feel uncomfortable if another person wore a dress similar to theirs. One can wear casuals and yet look stylish if they have the right attitude, carry themselves well and gel with the environment. On the contrary if one dresses up to show off or impress people chances are that he/she will get noticed for the wrong reasons.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Life in America

I am in America now. While here I cannot help comparing my life in India to life here. Which one is better? My heart insists that with all its shortcomings India is better. I suppose with time I may change my opinion if I ever I relocate to America in future. Just as I preferred life in my maternal home to the one I led in Jamshedpur when I first came to the steel city and now swear that no place in the world is as good as Jamshedpur! People tend to adapt but right now I feel ' East or West, India is the best'.

I think I will make a list of what I miss -

I miss the bustle of the morning hours in India. At five in the morning we have morning walkers greeting each other in loud voices -

" Jai Sriram".....

We have a park adjacent to our apartment complex and people of all ages come there for walking, jogging, yoga practice, for chatting with friends, to discuss politics and what not. They stay on till six thirty or seven in the morning only to be replaced by young mothers who have sent their children to school and go to the park for a quick run and also to exchange notes with others of their group. Class tests, excessive home work, a child's illness and the husband's quirks are part of the group discussions that take place simultaneous to those of senior ladies who leave home after sunrise due to gout, arthritis etc. that get affected by the chill morning air.

And then the school vans and auto rickshaws buzzing in and out, the milkman and the domestic helps arriving on the scene. TV programs heard from neighbors' homes with devotional songs playing at full volume and no one seems to object. Sipping my morning coffee from my balcony I don't even have to step out from my house to socialize. Familiar faces, a wave of the hand and a pleasant look that says 'how do you do' is enough to start my day.

In America you wake up to be greeted to deserted roads and an unfamiliar silence. Not a soul in sight one is left wondering whether it is okay to walk down the wooden steps uncertain if the noise would wake up the neighbors.

One went for a morning walk in India, accosting other morning walkers with a nod or a raised hand. On your way back you picked up milk, a packet of bread and fresh vegetables from a local vendor on his way to the market place. You haggle over the price while he outsmarts you by quoting a higher price condescending to give it at a rate that is midway between his and yours. You miss a day and someone or the other enquires after your health and wonders why you were not seen the previous day. Morning walks in the US are different. Known as well as unknown people greet you with a 'hello' and it is evident that they are being polite and you reciprocate. Beyond that they are as wary of you as you are of them. The nearest store is at least one and a half mile away and one has to get past a busy intersection to get there. The traffic baffles you and you prefer to be safe than sorry. Milk, grocery, bread, vegetables and fruits are all bought during the week ends and stored in huge refrigerators. Bargaining?? What's that? Never heard of it in America. The woman at the check out point says 'have a good day' but it is nothing like our roadside vendor who misses us if we took longer than three days to visit the marketplace.

Another thing I miss here is public transport. Anywhere one wishes to go in Jamshedpur we have the choice of taking an auto rickshaw or mini bus. And the town being a small one we reach our destination in a maximum of ten minutes. The rule here is to own a car to be mobile. Each family has two cars land once the child turns 18 she/ he will have a separate car. Now, assuming that we know to drive, isn't it unfair to expect them to have a fourth car for visitors? So we tag along when possible or end up reading books at home most of the time.

And how about the lack of domestic help in America. They are our lifeline in India. Oh, yes we have dishwashers and washing machines in which we can wash a week load of clothes and driers that can dry them up instantly. But at least for me domestic helps are like family. We had Rajamma who worked for me from the time I arrived in Jamshedpur and left us after 22 years. Then Ashok my launderer again an asset who is responsible for starching and ironing my sarees and drycleaning my woolens when winter is over. The clothes are dried out in the sun and ironed without a crease. My interactions  with them help me appreciate their role in our society.

Please don't get me wrong. In an earlier post I had complained that my husband bored me with his opinions on political issues but I seem to miss it now. We usually start our day with it. Reading it on the net isn't the same as hearing him rant and rave over corruption and rising prices of essential commodities.

But I see that all three children of mine have adapted to life in America like fish to water. They don't seem to mind. They want us to relocate and be close to them. I understand their concern and may give in sooner rather than later. But how long it is going to take for me to adapt is to be seen. And to top it I call myself flexible and adaptable till now. I am not sure anymore.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Religion as I see it......

I think my religion is important to me. Not because I think that the religion I was born into is superior or inferior to any other. But because is very accommodative. I can imagine orthodox Hindus giving me cold stares. The caste system having lost the purpose for which it was created, the Hindus belonging to the group that had the benefit of education and the duty of imparting it to others began to consider themselves superior. But would a truly educated and knowledgeable person consider one human being as being superior or inferior to another? How about the group who were given the duty of cleaning up the mess created by others? Are they not the most superior group in that they are making the world a place fit to live in? Were it not for them could the so called educators, protectors and business people lead a comfortable life?

So let us not go by the dictates of the caste system. Let us understand that our religious texts do not differentiate between human beings on the basis of caste, creed or the color of one's skin. It does glorify a person who is true to himself and the society he belongs to. It applauds a person who stands up for one who is subjected to injustice. In fact most Hindu festivals are celebrated to signify that evil forces cannot last for ever. Justice prevails and the negative forces are vanquished. It also means that one need not despair. Bad times will not last forever. It also does not imply that once evil forces are vanquished they're gone forever. The battle between good and evil forces continues and one has to be ever vigilant. It is a reminder that neither good times nor the evil ones last for ever.

I also believe that my religion does not impose strict rules for worship. As a child we had a set of rules. We could not have solid food unless we bathed. The food prepared for the family had to be offered to God before consumption. We had to wash our hands and feet on our return from school before entering the house. In fact children had to take off their school uniforms, put it away to be washed and change before being given snacks to eat. These were hygienic practices and had nothing to do with religion. Religion was brought in to make people follow them. The rules were also meant to bring discipline in one's life and when food was meant to be offered to God one tended be extra careful while preparing it. I for one would suggest that these practices would be good for all people not just Hindus.

Coming back to rules for worship -

As far as I can remember my mother fasted on specific days like ekadasi or restricted herself to a single meal on certain other days. A day was set apart for the God of health and another for the God of wealth. Fasting for the well being of sons and husbands and setting apart special occasions to celebrate the girl child and worshipping her as Durga the goddess of might and valour was also not uncommon. Sisters pray for the welfare of brothers during festivals like Rakhi, Karthik poornima, Makar Sankaranthi and Bhai dooj. So the message one gets is that in a family set up girls as well as boys are important. Fasting and feasting are both important for good health. Every celebration has a significance.

But while during festivals one was treated to special delicacies it is also believed that God could be pleased by offering pure water or a flower or by prostrating or folding one's hand with reverence before starting the day if possible. Even if that was too much it was enough to be good to fellow human beings and kind to animals. Rivers are considered sacred and trees such as Tulasi and Peepal are worshipped. Raw Turmeric is distributed to women during festivals.  All this talk of conserving the ecosystem and preserving the biodiversity on earth has been practiced for ages by our religion by attributing divinity to animals and plants. The cow is worshipped, the snake is found wrapped around Shiva, Durga rides the lion and Meenakshi has a parrot perched on her shoulder. Goddess Lakshmi sits on a lotus, Karthik rides a peacock. Well the list is endless. The ecological pyramid and the food web were understood much later but my religion accords due importance to producers, consumers and scavengers reminding us that ecological balance was possible only when they co-existed.

It is unfortunate that a few have distorted the Hindu way of living to present it out of context. Let us not be put off by them. More than a religion Hinduism is a way of life. It lets a person choose his method of serving humanity. Meditation is considered a way to worship as much as the fanfare associated with temple worship with the blowing of the conch, beating drums and dancing. You could be part of either or neither. You could simply choose to do your duty without expecting rewards. You could rever your parents and your teacher as Gods in human form. No pressure to follow set rituals and no guilt associated when for some reason one is not able to fulfill or practice them.

Is it any wonder that I am comfortable belonging to such a group.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Back to business!!


My research project is over and the final report has been drafted, approved and sent off to be bound. A little bit of writing work - like what was achieved by this work and how it would benefit society etc - remains. But the strain of poring into the microscope and identifying microorganisms is over. 

Did I enjoy my work? Of course I did. Do I want to take up another project? No, thanks. The next generation can continue from where we left. My house and family need my undivided attention. Husband has been sulking for too long and towards the end he even threatened to throw my laptop into the very river that was the subject of our investigation. I don't blame him. As I have said earlier, I am the only friend he has and it has been 14 years since he retired from service. He has his own opinion on political and social issues and cannot wait for me to get home to listen to his point of view. And apart from the time I served him his meals I would sit down with my laptop either  identifying the specimen that were micro-photographed, feeding data into tables or preparing graphs and charts. Sundays and holidays would be utilized for field work or visits to my Principal Investigator's or Ph. D guide's home for discussion. Summer vacation just came and went. I either went to college or worked at home engrossed in my work as usual. Husband was patient enough but became irritable towards the end.

I now come to my question on the issue.

I am passionate about whatever I do and do go overboard at times. But if our roles were reversed and it was my husband who was busy with some project taken up by him would I feel lonely and left out? I think not. 

Instead of sulking and pouting I would have occupied myself with umpteen chores that now remain unattended in the house. For instance I would have cleared the store room and disposed of the old  news papers and magazines. I would have seen to it that the house was tidied up and looked neat when he returned. And I would certainly not expect him to make tea and snacks for me within ten minutes of entering the house. Lastly, I would find some socially productive work to keep myself busy.

I do not know if I am being uncharitable but if our men folk show lack of understanding ( after all my project work would not continue for the next ten years) it is the woman/women who pamper them who has to accept blame. For my part, I agree that I played a role in making my husband an enabler.