It’s been almost two years since we’ve met our families back home. With the fantastic blessing that is technology, we have managed to keep-up our spirits through video calls with our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.
This afternoon, as I settled down to catch up on some work, the doorbell chimed. It was a courier delivery. The carton was big and fairly heavy.
I grew excited, because we’ve been eagerly awaiting this courier’s arrival from back home, lovingly despatched by my husband’s brother.
When my husband got home, we cut open the carton and for a moment there, the smell of home and our loved ones wafted through the air. It hit us then; how much we have missed visiting our family, a ritual we follow at least twice a year!
Soon, we delved into the box and took out its contents. In addition to the items we had ordered from back home, there were two gifts for me, a dress from my sister-in-law and a beautiful handwoven multi-purpose basket, made by her mother. I was in bliss.
But the highlight was a handwritten letter from my sister-in-law, asking after us and giving us news from back home. I haven’t received a single letter in the last decade, after my Dad passed away. My Dad was an avid letter writer, and I have preserved every single letter that he has ever written to me.
There is something so beautiful about a handwritten letter. No email or phone message can ever make up for a surprise letter from back home. I feel so happy and so touched. I will treasure this letter.
It is 11 am in the morning; and as I type away on my keyboard, one corner of my eye is watching my phone for a call that I have been expecting from a friend.
This is not a regular ‘catch-up’ call. This call signifies a yearly ritual, when one my dearest friends buys special raw mangoes, makes the yummiest mango pickle, bottles it and then gifts it to all her dear friends.
So, today is that day..and just the thought of the pickle makes me salivate.
Soon, my screen lights up and I hop down joyfully to our lobby, where my friend passes the bag, waves a cheery goodbye, and drives away in a rush.
I hug the bag and walk home. Before I put the bottle into the refrigerator, I open the lid and inhale the aroma. Pure bliss!!
I look at the clock, an hour and a half to go for lunch. I get back to work. But like a child who has been given a gift or who has a happy secret, I keep smiling in anticipation.
As I try to focus on my work, my Dad visits my thoughts. Back in my childhood, whenever my Dad sat down to eat, and when the first hot serving of rice was on his plate, the first thing he would do was to add a little bit of ghee, and then add mango pickle or lime pickle to his rice and eat that as his first course. And if we were around, he would give us spoonfuls of hot pickle rice, and we would devour them with relish.
It is finally lunch time. As all of us sit down at the table, I heap hot, fluffy rice on my plate, add a little ghee, and add my friend’s mango pickle. I mix it, and take the first mouthful. Divine!!!
And for a minute there, I go back to my childhood kitchen, and feel my Dad’s presence. The years have flown by, but time seems to have gone back to the past for a brief sojourn.
I ask my kids if they want to taste the pickle rice. And they taste it and love it! No surprise there at all!!
I smile. The bigger things in life may keep changing, but there are some simple moments in life that are sheer magic, and that don’t change.
I bless and thank my friend for all her efforts and love each year.
For most of us who grew up in the eighties, the days in a year were of two types. School days and holidays. We had a long summer break, and a shorter winter break. School days were packed with classes, homework, and studying for tests and exams. Holidays, however, were blissful, long days; days that stretched this way and that to accommodate our lassitude, days that watched us indulgently as we discovered new books, authors, games, and movies; days that saw us squabbling with our siblings or go out exploring with friends looking for beetles, bugs and magic.
While our holidays were packed with fun activities, there were times when we would suddenly run out of things to do or books to read, or would want to completely avoid our siblings due to an ongoing cold war.
And at such times, I would always seek out my dear aunt, who was a pro at knitting, and who took in orders to hand-knit the most beautiful sweaters, baby mittens, mufflers, scarves, ponchos, shawls and caps. She had a beautiful knitting pattern book that she would pore over every afternoon.
So, at times when there seemed to be nothing to do, I would tell my aunt that I wanted to learn knitting. And with a patience that I can never ever have, she would teach me to tie the wool to the needle, and would slowly explain how to create a knit and a purl. And each time I dropped a stitch, she would patiently undo it and give it back to me.
Many glorious afternoons were spent like this. However, the moment a friend called out to me or if the cold war with my siblings had ended, I would sweetly tell my aunt that I would come back and knit later.
She would smile, and put away my needles and ask me to go out and play. And all through my childhood, I could take up knitting at will, without any pressure to knit anything useful. I made long pieces of knits and purls, that were abandoned till the next time I sought out my aunt again.
Finally, when I had just passed out of high school and had a longer break than usual, I bravely embarked on a knitting project – to knit a sweater for myself – I chose a pale peach colour and discussed a simple 5 knit 5 purl pattern of squares with my aunt.
And I spent hours knitting; and when I reached the right length, I handed the piece over to my aunt, who then brought the front of the sweater to its right shape. Then I worked on the back of the sweater, and knitted another long piece, and again handed it over to her for completion.
And finally, my aunt got the sweater ready! I had just knitted long pieces, but my aunt told everybody proudly that her niece had knitted the whole sweater.
When I think back now, I realize how rejuvenating those times with my aunt were. She never forced me to learn knitting or master it, she never said anything when I wanted to leave halfway to play or to read. She was simply there for me, allowing me to just be.
And, even today, when I see wool or knitted wear, I feel happy; for it brings back memories of peace, love and contentment and those truly precious moments with my dearest aunt.
Earlier today, I chanced upon a physical photograph from our children’s childhood archives. My husband and I have been meaning to digitize all these pics some day, but that day is yet to arrive.
The photo brought a smile to my face, as it was a top angle picture of my daughter gurgling inside her cloth hammock cradle, taken when she was a chubby six month old baby.
The cloth hammock was baby- pink in colour and made of netted cloth. It was attached to a spring, and suspended from a strong hook on the ceiling in my daughter’s room.
My daughter was a light sleeper, and would wake up at the slightest sound. My husband and I were permanently sleep deprived, and took turns to carry the baby, sing to her or rock her in the hammock.
I had a few lullabies that I had in stock as I rocked the cradle. And, when I felt that my daughter had gone to sleep, I would try to slowly walk away, but I don’t remember ever reaching the door without her gurgling and announcing that she was still wide awake.
Then my husband would give it a shot, and on it went. But on many such nights, when both of us were weary from a long day, and had to leave for work early the next morning, my dear father in law would tell us, “Why don’t you both catch a few winks, I will rock the hammock.”
And even before he completed his sentence, my husband and I would slink away, our hearts filled with gratitude for his help and love.
While for us, the parents, it was one of our duties in child rearing, for my father in law it was a pleasurable activity, as he woud talk or sing to his granddaughter with absolute joy.
The first deep bonds of love between granddad and granddaughter were sown then, as they had late night chats and gurgled to each other. And whenever my father in law paused his singing or talking, my daughter would say “hmmmmm” loudly, as if asking why he had stopped talking to her. And with delighted laughter, my father in law would resume the conversation again.
I have cooked Venn Pongal for breakfast this morning; a staple South Indian breakfast item made out of cooked rice and split moong dal. My husband expresses his appreciation for the Pongal and settles down on the sofa with his frothing cup of filter coffee!
There is a lovely story behind how I learnt to make tasty Venn Pongal. Let me take you back to the halcyon days of my childhood…..
The Tamil month of Marghazi usually fallsbetween mid-December to mid-January each year, and during this month special prayers are offered in most South Indian temples.
In our small and beautiful hometown, this month was a super-special month to look forward to, as we had our school winter break, and also our daily morning sojourns to the temple.
With a white layer of frost blanketing the countryside for company, my friends and I would rush out at 6.30 a.m. each morning to visit the temple.
The highlight was the yummiest VennPongal that was served to all those who were present. The pongal was served on pieces of banana leaf. My friends and I would relish each mouthful, closing our eyes in bliss. Divine!
Many years later, when I started cooking and tried to make pongal, I realized that mine was missing something. It did not taste half as good as the temple pongal. I asked family members for tips, but somehow my pongal always seemed to fall short.
A few years went by this way. Then, one fine afternoon, when my husband and I were out shopping, we bumped into the person who used to make the temple pongal. We were so happy and excited to meet each other after more than two decades. After we had caught up with family stories and had exchanged news about common friends, I blurted out, “How was your pongal so yummy?”
He smiled, and said, “It is very simple, just add hot milk to it. That is all.” I thanked him profusely, as we each went our separate ways.
Now, as I settle down for breakfast and eat the first spoonful, I can feel the cold winter breeze of our little town, the company of my dearest childhood friends and the hot piping delicious pongal, all of which added to the magic of those wonderful days.
In the course of our every day lives, there are some simple, innocuous moments which clearly demarcate two different activities, emotions, or incidents in our days. When I tie up my hair in a firm knot on top of my head there is a demarcation between the lazy me and the lady who is about to go on a cleaning spree. Inhaling the aroma of coffee signals that the night is old, and that another day has begun.
I was thinking about such moments earlier today, when I went back in time to my college days. Our hometown nestled in a cool, green valley in the Nilgiri hills in the Western Ghats of South India. The Nilgiri mountains abound with lush greenery and wildlife. The fresh crisp mountain air and the cold weather are always invigorating.
During my college days, I used to visit home during the holidays. Glorious days of catching up with friends and neighbours, and mom’s yummy food.
The days would fly away in a jiffy, and it was soon time to go back to college and hostel. I would usually take the mid-afternoon bus from our town for a three-hour journey. My Dad would drop me off at the bus terminus. Loaded with snacks and packed food from home, I would bid a cheery bye to my Dad.
The bus had to wind down through the mountains to the plains. And from my window, I would watch the beautiful scenery, the birds, the tiny silver waterfalls, the small brooks that one could sight along the way, the monkeys on the roadside, the blue, blue sky and the valley far below.
There were fourteen hairpin bends that the bus driver had to navigate. Some of these bends would cause our insides to churn. And after the hairpin bends, the bus would almost be three-fourths on its way down from the mountains. And there, in a small village, the bus would stop for ten minutes; for the driver to stretch his legs and for everyone on the bus to have a cup of tea and refresh themselves.
The village was always bustling with activity, with vendors coming to each bus to sell all kinds of chips, wafers, candy, juice and water.
One of the stalls in this village sold the most amazing spicy and crisp tapioca chips ever. The moment the bus stopped, I would leap out and buy two packets. One to be eaten on the bus, and one to be eaten in the hostel at night.
I would get back on the bus and open the packet. The first crunch of tapioca in the mouth …. truly a slice of heaven. Soon the bus would pull out of the parking, and we would start the second phase of our journey.
These Tapioca chips signified a huge transition on each such trip. The cold and fresh mountain air that carried wisps of home, love and fun, was replaced by the air of the plains – humid, warm and bringing with it the chaos and vibrancy of the city.
By the time I had consumed the last chip, the bus was trundling through the flat roads, tall coconut trees swaying merrily in the evening sun on either side. My body language automatically changed from home mode to college mode.
Another day has ended. I am stretched out on the recliner, staring at nothing in particular. My kids are nowhere in sight, while my husband is still busy at work.
A cool breeze enters from the balcony door and teases tendrils of hair onto my face. The sky is dark; dark grey clouds are hanging low. There is a deep rumbling of thunder from far away clouds that are at loggerheads with each other. Sparks fly and bright streaks of lightning illumine the firmament, now here, now gone. The rumbling goes on for sometime.
Finally, the clouds seem to have had enough. They let their emotions rain down on earth. Now, along with the breeze is the gentle sound of rain. Thin silver trains that can only be seen against the street lights. The falling rain is soothing. The clouds are spent. They are done with their day. The earth guzzles this welcome treat. The orchids on my balcony are nodding in merriment. The odd plop of a loud drop can be heard on and off.
The rain’s music continues. There is the occasional rumble from high above, but down below all is well. The night has arrived with the rain, rejuvenating the earth, in a timeless dance that will repeat even we are all gone.
The magic of rain can never be explained, it can only be experienced. Whether it is the lashing Indian monsoon or a gentle evening drizzle or a continuous downpour at night, rain is love, rain is nostalgia, rain is hot coffee with samosas, rain is poignancy, rain is coziness, rain is music, rain is magic.
It’s the weekend, and I finally decide to get down to some long overdue decluttering of a few cupboards at home. My strategy for decluttering varies greatly from that of my husband’s.
He offers to help, and I warn him that we have to work as a team. He agrees with a huge grin, for we both know where this is headed. I am an emotional declutterer, meaning I have deep attachments to old CDs, boxes, cables, stationery, clothes etc. My husband is ruthless when it comes to decluttering, and discards things without mercy. And within these two extreme boundaries, we get down to business.
I wallow in nostalgia when I see some old CDs, laptops, games consoles and books. My husband piles them in the donate or recycle pile. We then chance upon a box with old woollens. In this box is a green poncho which is over four decades old, a pair of baby-socks, a small hand knitted sweater, and other scarves and mufflers.
The green poncho, a bottle green one with a big green button, the baby socks and the sweater were all hand-knitted by my aunt, my Dad’s sister. The poncho was knitted for my sister, while the socks and tiny sweaters were gifts to my children from their great aunt.
I cannot bear to part with these treasures, for they have threads from my childhood and other family memories knitted into them. I take the box out, and look at all the items. My throat catches. Just for a bit there, I wish I could go back and watch my aunt poring over her knitting pattern book, or hold my newborn daughter cuddled up in her baby sweater, wearing the cute socks. I smile and sigh, as I clean the box and put back all the contents, and throw in a fragrance pouch!
And then we are back to the job at hand, sorting, piling and discarding. My husband takes out an old pair of binoculars, which his dad had bought for him – from the US – in the early eighties. My husband carefully takes the binoculars out, and as I watch him, he slips away for a few minutes, lost in the alleys of his childhood, remembering his dad and all the many moments with this pair of binoculars.
He wipes the case gently, and puts it back into the cupboard. The rest of the decluttering proceeds uneventfully.
Sometimes decluttering is therapeutic, not only in the way it helps reduce the clutter in our lives, but in also reminding us that there are certain objects in our lives that inexorably connect us to our pasts, and remind us of our beginnings, of unconditional love from our elders, and of being cherished and protected. A love that we feel secure in even to this day!
My daughter is on a cleaning spree. She declutters, files, staples, sorts, reorganizes and decorates her room. Later, she invites all of us to take a look. We cheer her and tell her that the room is unrecognizable.
My daughter then says, ‘Amma, look at what I found’. It is a small card that my Dad had attached to one of his letters to me, when I was in college. The card was a handwritten one, wishing me luck for my final exams before graduation. I had gifted it to my daughter a few years ago, when she took her board exams for the first time.
We smile when we read the small verse my Dad has composed. One of the lines reads “As you appear for your exams, may your memory remain as fresh as the jasmine flowers that grow in our garden.”
I remember how happy and comforted I felt when I received the card. Seeing my Dad’s writing, and his loving words, had reassured me. As I turn the card to study the small sketch my Dad had included on the card, lots of memories come rushing in.
Memories are everywhere, and they appear the moment you recall even something simple from the past. These will then bring with them other allied memories, which in turn come with their own hyperlinks. And the moment one is in the happy throes of a past memory, all one needs to do is to mentally press the hyperlinks, and then recall the simple times, the silly times, the times with Dad, the fun time with friends, the not so good times and the times that can never come back.
And that is the beauty of a memory. It can sneak-in when you least expect it – lurking in the fragrance of a small flower or in the smile of a complete stranger, entwined in a melody that the wind carries or ensconced in the creamy layers of a yummy cake, woven into the complex patterns of a dress or in the scrawly scratches of a handwritten note.
I close my eyes. I am back in my childhood home. Time stands still in the present, as I walk down the alleys of the past, inhaling deeply the fragrant memories of my childhood.
It is noon, and I am in a cab. My destination is twenty minutes away, and the first thing I do is pick up my phone and call one of my sisters. Her line is busy, and I call the other sister. She picks up my call, and we start chatting.
We exchange family stories, talk about her children, my children, work, life goals, health goals, wardrobes, new products, photos that we sent to each other, accessories, and then get back to more family trivia.
Soon, my cab reaches the destination, and I bid a cheery bye to my sister and get back to my own world; with a broad smile on my face and a spring in my step – for that’s what sisters do to you.
You can laugh with them, cry with them, be annoyed with them or argue with them, for they will not judge you for any of it.
Last month, when we were out for dinner with my sister’s family, I eyed the beautiful handbag she was carrying and raved about it. “You can have it”, she said. And with no guilt whatsoever, I took the bag, gave back its contents in a small plastic bag, and became the proud owner of my sister’s handbag.
And that’s just one of the million reasons why sisters are special. You can call them at midnight to discuss even simple absurdities, and they will think nothing of it.
In our home, I have one wardrobe, and two extended wardrobes that belong to my sisters, and which I have unlimited access to. And they have the same access to mine.
A sister has shared all the silliness and giggly moments in your childhood with you. One of the fondest memories I have is of how my sister would come back from kindergarten (I had not yet started school then), and would always remember to bring a butter biscuit back for me, an extra biscuit that she had received for answering questions correctly in class.
A sister may squabble and annoy and drive you crazy within the four walls of your home, but to anyone who troubles you outside home, she is a force to be reckoned with.
A sister will tell you things about yourself that you may not like to hear; but then she will be the one you turn to when you have even the smallest problem, or when you just want to rant.
Sisters fill your life with sunshine, and are a 24 x 7 support hotline. They enrich your life, and make you laugh, make you cry, and argue with you.
But whenever I have a free moment, my first choice will always be to pick up the phone to call my sisters.