Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Happy Mother's Day

I am in Atlanta this Mother's Day. Celebrated the day with my son and his friends. We had Mother’s Day lunch at an Indian restaurant. The food was good and so was the company. It was almost when we were leaving that my son’s friend asked me as to how we celebrated Mother’s Day in India. No, this friend was not an American but an Indian who had, like my own children, taken up a job in the US of A and had been here for several years. I don’t remember what exactly was my response to his question. I said something to the effect that Mother’s Day was a western concept and is now catching up in India too. I also mentioned that with the joint family system breaking up and children relocating to foreign shores it was perhaps natural to set aside a day exclusively for parents. 

His question however had me thinking. When I was growing up we did not have a day set apart for our mothers or fathers. Women fasted and prayed for their husbands and sons. The girl child was honored during Navaratri. Brothers were accorded due importance during Rakhi and Kartik poornima. Shrardh was performed for dead ancestors. But children were never encouraged to pray for the well being of parents when alive. Neither mother nor father. But why?

It looks as if an entire society took it for granted that parents would always remain pillars of strength and their well being did not require  divine intervention. It also perhaps understood that children would automatically take responsibility for aging parents treat them with dignity and consider them as part of their family. 

Praying for the well being of sons and honoring the girl child was perhaps due to the fact that sons were expected to take care of parents in their old age and daughters were meant to be treated not as burdens but as special guests when they visited. It also indicates that the custom of celebrating certain festivals to strengthen the bond between brother and sister was a way of ensuring that they remained in touch even after their parents passed on. But parents required no such special occasions to bond with their children.

I think times have changed and so has society. Parents value their independence and want their personal space. Children too lead a busy life and much as they want to, are unable to spare time for their parents. Schools are encouraging their students to celebrate ‘grandparent’s day’ to appreciate their role in society. To keep pace with a changing society it may not be inappropriate to set apart a day in the year for one’s aging parents.

Treat them to dinner at a fancy restaurant - they may never muster courage to enter it on their own.

Order sugar free cakes for them and make them feel special.


Spend a quiet evening with them talking about old times, relishing traditional home food and listening to golden oldies.


Tell them how much you value their presence in your lives.

Let them tell your children about all the crazy things you did when you were a kid. They would love to hear them over and over again!

Finally the celebration must include both your parents and parents in law. Your in laws are entitled to your company as much as your own parents.

Happy Mother’s Day! 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Just my thoughts........

I hear a lot of talk about the Hindu religion being at the risk of being maligned and degraded by those affiliated to other religions. It is being said that efforts are on to convert ours to an Islamic or Christian nation. I do not subscribe to this view. Ours is a secular country. The Indian society is a multilingual and multicultural one that is respectful of views that may or may not be in concurrence with its own. It is an inclusive one that has been successively ruled by Moghul and  British rulers. But that has not impacted our religious beliefs or cultural heritage in a big way. The Hindu way of life has prevailed despite the effort by several intolerant rulers to suppress it.  Our society has demonstrated to the world that freedom could be availed by non violent means.  Why then is insecurity seeping into our lives? Why do we feel threatened and/or feel the need to protect our religion? I find it strange to call Hinduism a religion. It is a way of life. It is flexible enough to accommodate a person who is deeply religious as much as one who folds his/her hands to ask God a favor when in distress. It advocates the conservation of nature and compassion to animals. Yoga and pranayam have become universally recognized health promoting techniques. More than anything else it advises us to do our duty without expecting rewards. Could a religion of this stature be threatened by external factors? No way! On the contrary I believe that more and more people would take to the Hindu way of life whatever their religious affiliation. 

Why then are we being told that the world is ganging up against us? Or that our media is the mouthpiece of the group that wants to systematically destroy our religion? If there was even an iota of truth in this claim, it does not speak well of our journalists and news channels. I do agree that Hindus belonging to the so called lower strata of the caste system opted for conversion to other religions hoping for a better quality of life as well as social acceptance. Unfortunately we have to admit that the caste system has successfully divided our society into divisions that are difficult to bridge and ought to take responsibility for creating an emotional distance between different groups by failing to recognize the dignity of labor and considering one group as being superior or inferior to another. But the caste system was the creation of society and our religion had nothing to do with it. 

Coming to the point raised earlier - is it wrong if those at the receiving end of social discrimination opt to embrace a faith that they believe to be equal in its treatment of all human beings? Why not put ourselves in their shoe and see how it feels? Moreover, I am sure that caste discrimination prevails in all of the Indian society cutting across religious affiliations and social standing of individuals. Hindus may openly express it but it is there in other religions as well in a more subtle way. I can see it getting reduced to a very great extent but it will take some time more and a whole generation or two before it is completely erased. 

I digress. Could an ancient religion like Hinduism to be decimated by a few fanatics and a bunch of  irresponsible journalists and media persons? I do not think so. I see a good number of Westerners taking to the Hindu way of life by practicing pranayam, yoga and meditation, switching to vegetarian or vegan food and trying to research on the health benefits of  herbal medicine. Let us then get over this insecurity and promote our culture not by pointing fingers at imaginary sources of threat but by leading by example. Let us try to analyze our rituals and attribute scientific reasons to our religious practices. Above all let the world make a choice and understand/appreciate the Hindu way of life and the logic behind it. Tending to plants that are of medicinal and cosmetic value and according divine status to rivers are means of supporting life on earth and need to be understood as universal requirements without being brushed off as Hindu rituals. Whether it is using plantain leaves as plates or brushing our teeth with margosa (neem) stalks each of our practice has been tried and tested for centuries and if we learn to respect them, the world will follow. The threat to our religion is not from external sources but from our own doubting minds that consider them as baseless, old fashioned and superstitious. Let us weed out suspicion and negativity from our minds and pledge to conserve natural resources, to be compassionate towards animals, be kind to fellow human beings and respectful to followers of religions other than our own. In doing so we would be serving mankind and promoting humanism as much as Hinduism.  

These are just my thoughts. Let us first learn to understand our religion and culture before expecting the world to do so.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Gobi Chronicles - 2

Between the time I wrote my last piece and now I have lost my maternal uncle “Mama” as he is fondly called. When I met him in February I had not realized that his end was near or that I would not get to meet him again. He had then asked me to read a few pages of handwritten accounts of his life. The writing was somewhat illegible and I had to ask for clarification many a time but one thing was clear. Mama wanted the younger generation of grand and great grandchildren to know about “Vembathy House”. I promised to come again at leisure and sit by his side with a laptop and type out what he had written. He then asked me to pen down whatever I remembered about life in Gobi and gave me - as reference - xerox copies of the accounts given by his brothers and nephews in law about life in my mami’s maternal home. How I wish mama could have lived a little longer and read about the affection we have for him. To put it the other way I wish I had come up with this piece early enough for him to read it. But what is life without its lapses? We never seem to think - even in our wildest dreams - ever that our loved ones would leave us. The regret is mine to be.

Krishnamurthy Mama was my mother’s youngest sibling and only brother. The story goes that my grandparents had lost two sons earlier and the family was naturally fiercely protective of the health of the only surviving son. My own mother would tell me often that she would give him a thorough ‘oil bath’ on Wednesdays and Saturdays and if he skipped a day for some reason she’d worry herself to tears imagining that he would fall sick on account of that. All five sisters pampered him as much as they could.

My earliest memory of mama - apart from a hazy mental picture of his wedding - is the trip we made to Bombay by car. My dad had been transferred to Bombay and we had to wait for a month to be allotted accommodation before joining him. Mama, accompanied by a driver, drove us to Bombay from Gobi.

One thing we all remember about mama is his amazing sense of humor without malice. My sister and me would have fights and his famous question would be “Are you both fighting or biting each other”? He’d often be late and would have to rush to board a bus or train and a worried mami would be anxiously waiting for him at the gate.  All he would say to her would be “Be calm. Can you make the train move faster by walking to and fro inside the compartment”? He would diffuse all tension in a minute. I cannot recall a single incident when he’d raise his voice to discipline us as children. Vembathy house would, in those days, be teeming with grandchildren. There would be quarrels among the children. Grandkids would run wild in its premises. Friends would join and together we’d have a few perched on the guava tree and others hiding under my grandfather’s table. Thatha was a practicing advocate and his clients would add to the melee. Mama normally returned from his farmland in the evening to a noisy house with his father raising his voice a pitch higher than the children to address his clients but he would never ask the children to stop playing or direct their friends to return home. Vembathy House was an inclusive one - tolerance and patience were qualities one imbibed naturally from its ambience.

My own father died when my younger brothers were 3 and 5 years of age and my mother relocated to her maternal home. My brothers have no memories of my father but mama adequately compensated for a father figure in their lives. It was a common sight to see them perch on his shoulders or roll over his tummy. Mama normally brought home deep fried items from a famous Sheshaiyyar’s hotel in town and my brothers would open the packet even before his own children could but I don’t remember mama or mami bearing a grudge or admonishing them for it. The same tolerant behavior was carried forward by his children and one never heard them complain about or grudge our presence in the house. To be fair I must add that my mother’s sisters were equally kind and no one questioned my thatha’s decision to support our family. What struck out was that even after his father’s death mama continued to support us and my mother continued to depend on him till the youngest of my brothers took up a job in Bombay.

I got married and relocated to Jamshedpur. Mama came to drop me off at Jamshedpur after the birth of my first born daughter who was just three months old. My daughter being the first grandchild, my husband and in laws had wanted me to come earlier and were upset with me for taking longer than the two months stipulated by them to return with the child. The atmosphere in the house was charged. It was one occasion when I heard my mama talk tough.

“ She is young and inexperienced” he said to my mother in law, “but we aren’t. Aren’t we supposed to take charge of the situation and deal with it appropriately? It is the duty of elders in a joint family to diffuse tension between the young couple instead of blowing it up to disproportionate levels. The child is just three months old and is always going to be part of your family. How does it matter if she took a couple of weeks longer to return? There ought to be do no more discussion regarding this matter. It is pointless”.

His words had a magical effect and I realized that he had doubled up for a father whom I had lost ten years back. I also realized that while mama was kind hearted and gentle he could also take charge of the situation and act tough without damaging the cause. He later told me in jest that he had the experience of dealing with five brothers in law - each one with a different temperament - so he was well trained early in life!

Above other things Mama stands tall due to his interaction with his wife and children. He had often faced financial crises when crops failed and management farming became more and more difficult. But he never let on that times were difficult and even the genuine demands of his family were hard to fulfill. Nor did we ever hear how he managed to tide over the lean patches in his life. He never vented his frustration by taking it out on his family. He looked after his ailing wife for seventeen long years without a frown on his face which is way beyond the capability of any human being.

Mama loved carnatic music. It was not unusual for him to pick up the day’s newspaper and relax with his favorite numbers playing in the background at ten in the night. Very often he would fall asleep but the moment someone switched off the tape recorder or transistor he’d wake up and put it on again. He was a great fan of the legendary R. K. Narayan and had a collection of books written by him. He’d encourage me to read his books at a time when I was in the Mills and Boon stage and had not learned to appreciate R. K. Narayan’s writing. Art Buchwald was another favorite.

Wherever he went Mama would do a survey of the local market. He picked items, that I didn’t even know were available, from Jamshedpur market.  He would have loved to travel around the world and make a trip to the moon too if it were possible.

This piece can go on and on without an end. After all however much I try to end it I seem to have more to add. We were twenty one grandchildren in Vembathy House. Four were his own and the rest were nieces and nephews. I cannot recall an instance when Mama and mami treated any of us differently. The same affection was extended to our spouses and children. My cousin recently put on a recorded version of my daughters singing as pre teenagers during one of their visits to his place. Having heard that I planned to visit them Mama had asked his daughter to look for the audio tape and keep it ready for me. I was moved to tears. After all how much affection can a person have. He had his own grandchildren on whom he could shower his affection and yet he had more to spare for our children too. It is this selfless love that links us to Mama and his family. There is something genuine and honest in our relationship with him. Words fail to adequately describe the emotions and affection that we have for him.

They say that one can choose friends not family. I was lucky to have been brought up among good people and to carry forward a part of the family’s gene pool. I was lucky to have an uncle who was an adorable human being with a great sense of humor, who wanted to live life like a king but was also one who accepted life’s blows with grace. Patience and perseverance, love, kindness and tolerance, these were valuable lessons we learnt from him. He may have had his shortcomings but they did not impact others in any way. There were times when I felt that future visits to Gobi  will not be the same without Mama to welcome us. But I also feel that I would feel connected and sense his presence in Vembathy House even without him being there. The last time I visited Gobi I took the keys from my cousin and spent about 15 minutes in the empty house that I grew up in. The house in which I got married and left for Jamshedpur. I felt a sense of comfort - a connection to my childhood - that is hard to describe. The years that have gone by did not seem important. The vibes that I received were positive. So deep in my heart I wish to hold on to that connection and carry forward the culture that I was lucky to inherit.

I have written this piece from my perspective. I am sure others have more to share. Like my older brother fondly remembers the time when Mama escorted him to St. Josephs’s College, Tiruchy for admission or a cousin who recalled the time when Mama quietly reimbursed the mess bill amount and added a little extra as pocket money when he approached him saying that the amount had been stolen. Each of us have fond memories that link us to mama and I am sure we all would agree that he was a pampered and beloved brother, a wonderful father, a loving uncle, a compatible life partner to his wife and a great human being.