Tuesday, January 31, 2017

10 ways to survive the madness

I decided to make this list to remind myself on how to remain sane despite the insanity around me.

  1. Pick one new organization to support that is doing its part to counter the madness - ACLU, HRW, Amnesty, WFP, UNHCR, Planned Parenthood, Democracy Now, local charities.
  2. Volunteer as a family with a local organization - for us it is the Audubon Society
  3. Read 12 books that either re-imagine the world, or teach us lessons from the past/present/future  - 1984, Brave New World, Handmaid's Tale, Maddaddam, Seveneves, Silent Spring, Sixth Extinction, Collapse, Anthropocene, Things Fall Apart, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Guns/Germs and Steel ....
  4. Avoid all news and social media at least 1 day a week - completely unplugged
  5. Explore new art forms, music, literature preferably from other countries, other centuries to believe in the best of humanity and break stereotypes. You can start with Khaira Arby (see video below)
  6. Binge on Attenborough and Nature Shows in Netflix to see the beauty that's out there that needs to be defended
  7. Devote some time for laughter - P.G.Wodehouse or even Seinfeld reruns
  8. Pay attention to what kids are learning at school especially their history/geography curriculum and have discussions around it.
  9. Breathe. Take a walk in the park, if possible everyday
  10. Give and draw strength from family and friends 
How are you getting through?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A tribute to a one-of-a-kind grandmother

After a family dinner celebrating our 18th year of being successfully married, our daughter decided that Baskin and Robbins would be a fine way to end the day. Being a vegan I decided to stay in the warmth of our car as both members of my household, equally excited hopped off to choose their flavors. That's when I got the message, 3 simple words from my brother over What's app "paati (grandmom in Tamil) no more". Before you debate if Whats App is the right medium to communicate these matters, you should know my brother speaks telegraphically so even a face to face or an actual voice call would not have communicated anything more. This does not mean that his feelings could be contained in 3 words. He grew up under her care and spent the longest time with her and shared a special bond. So I know that there was more to it than the whatsapp could communicate. After all anyone who has been touched by my grandmother was going through a range of emotions and reminiscences as we speak and by God she lived for nearly 10 decades and active till about a year back so she gave us a lot to reminisce about.

Her name was Seethalakshmi but I have not heard anyone call her by that name. Everyone knew my paternal grandmother by name and she was addressed by her name, whereas my maternal grandmom didn't seem to have a name. She always was "amma" or "paati" and each grandchild attached their own prefix. To me she was "chetpet" paati, to another cousin she was "madras" paati, later in life she became "bombay" paati. She went where she was needed the most and in that process she acquired these prefixes. 

I was always intrigued by the contrast between my two grandmothers. My paternal one taught me to enjoy life - my interest in arts, movies, books were all kindled by her. She had a loud commanding voice which could sing melodiously and she kept the house clean, warded off unsavory characters but rarely entered the kitchen to cook for my brother and I. I remember her with dark hair which turned lighter as she aged and she passed away peacefully, ten days before my dad did as though she willed to not live to see that. My maternal was the stark opposite although the two of them remained good friends and shared our home peacefully for many years.. Always in the kitchen, creating magic even if she was only making tea, we looked forward to having her home as we didn't have to eat toast when we came back from school. I used to ask her if she ever got tired of cooking and she would be surprised at that question - after all with modern conveniences like fridge and a mixer what's the big deal about cooking! (She never graduated to a microwave). She moved in with my parents when my brother was born so she could care for us both and was instrumental in bringing us up, "training" my brother to eat bread (a substance she never ate) as she felt it was vital training for kids whose moms work outside the home in case there are no grandmoms to care for them.

 My mother's family rarely raised their voices, rarely yelled at their kids, were permissive in their parenting styles, treated their girls as apple of their eyes and all of that could be traced to my grandmom's dad. From what I heard her tell, he was "blessed" only with daughters and never once treated them as a burden - a rare thing for his time, and even in modern India. He was kind, gentle and raised his daughters with love and respect. The only mark against him was hurrying my grandmom off in child marriage due to the expected passage of the Sarada Act of 1929. That's one way we peg my grandmom's age. We know she was not yet 14 in 1929 and was probably 11 or 12 which would put her at 97/98 when she passed.

My memory is operating jukebox style once again and random incidents pop up. I remember her tell the story of how my brother as a toddler had locked her in the bathroom and how she gently coaxed the child to open the door for her. Her husband left her with no money when he was alive, but a financially independent pensioner when he passed on, so she had to learn to sign her name with his initial to collect the checks. She would practice writing the letter "R" on a newspaper multiple times, before she would be ready to sign the check. She was the first in our family to board a plane and I remember her jumping onto the escalator in her whole nine yards - a feat that my mom is yet to achieve. In fact I boarded my first airplane when I accompanied her to Bombay and it was comical to watch her tie the seat belt.When one of her grandkids needed to be treated in Pondicherry for a rare eye defect back in the '60s she relocated to Pondy with her son and grandchild for 6 months so she could be treated. When her nervous grandson called fearful for his exams she had wise counsel to offer. When one of her newly married granddaughters was facing trouble with her mother-in-law she went as an emissary to sort things out. When I delivered my child she was on the phone offering tips and recipes on how to deal with a gassy baby. When my cousin had invited a couple of teachers from London to spend a week with her in Chennai, my grandmother made them delicious dosas and coffee and hosted them for many days, all without speaking a word of English. The power of gestures, love and hospitality was all that was needed to communicate. I remember a cousin of mine telling me about his adventures in college all in English when she jumped in and said "if your dad hears about this he will have the skin off your back. So better focus on your studies"! Needless to say she left us stunned.

She never told many stories, rarely spoke about herself, but when she did it was precious. I remember asking her why didn't she go to hear Kasturba Gandhi speak when she visited Chennai. Her response was "who would feed the hungry kids if I am off listening to Gandhi". When we were discussing Ramanujam (yes the mathematician) she said she knew his wife and pitied her as her life was fraught with domestic difficulties. Yes domesticity was the name of her game, but in a different age and time she could've been a diplomat, a child psychologist, a marriage counselor or a world famous chef.

During her lifetime she lost her sisters, her in-laws and very soon she was the only one in her demographic still walking the earth among her extended family and friends. The loss didn't stop at her generation. She watched two of her children, two of her sons-in-law and two of her granddaughters pass away (feels like a nightmarish Noah's ark ) - some snatched brutally by accidents, some fell victims to cancer. I never watched her cry, lament or blame the gods (although I never saw her pray either). She took things in her stride. Towards the end she regretted being alive for so long. After all, her caregivers themselves were hitting their 80s and she felt a burden. But to me and to everyone who had known her she was the burden carrier, the one we would turn to for solace, advice, counsel and not to mention recipes. My daughter had met her once, but she benefits from her recipes everyday.
My grandmom along with my maternal uncles were instrumental in bringing me up. My mother was one of the first generations of Indian women working outside the home and without her mother and her brothers we would not be where we are today and I am eternally grateful to them. Even today as I see my mom try her best to offer any form of support we need I know where she got it from. I was sorry to hear about my grandmom's struggles towards the end, but am thankful for all these years she was with us and if my concoctions are even 1/10th of what she used to make I hope to pass them onto my daughter so a piece of my grandmom can live through her. It's been a few days since her passing and as I sat down to write this post I wondered why I felt the need to write. Yes it is a tribute to her but more importantly I felt a need to record her life in some way for posterity especially for my daughter to get some insight on the kind of person who made her mom the way she is, at least the good parts!

Today I say bye to you paati and this time it is just "paati" with no prefixes for a change, not because there is no place that needs you, but it is high time we learn to handle our lives on our own and you've earned your well deserved rest!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

7 day nature challenge

I generally don't respond to forwards, dares/challenges and chain posts on facebook, but when a friend challenged me to post 7 Nature pictures for 7 days I felt like responding to this one. But again, I am not very regular on the social networks, so decided to put all 7 pictures here at the same time. So here they are. (Photo courtesy: the spouse)

#1 - Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah

Our family loves the outdoors and in a recent trip to Utah we hiked about 50 miles over 6 days and hit the 3 famous parks - Zion, Bryce and Arches. This picture is from the trail to Queen's Garden and Navajo loop. It was cold, slippery and windy and that added to the beauty of the hoodoos. I post this picture as a representative of all the beauty in the National Parks in the US from Yosemite, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and many many more.

# 2 - Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania

This crater in Tanzania is close to the Olduvai Gorge where homnids have been traced back to 3 Million years. Today the crater is home to the Big 5 mammals and the sight of a solitary black rhino against a backdrop of pink flamingos will remain permanently etched in my mind.

#3 Vedanthangal near Chennai

We seldom pay attention to things in our own backyard, until we are forced to move away. Vedanthangal never received enough respect from me when I was growing up in Chennai. Only now do I realize what a paradise it is for bird lovers and more importantly for the birds themselves.  On those rare occasions that I am in Chennai in December, I make a pilgrimage to this sanctuary.

#4 Amazonian Ecuador

Waiting patiently for about 40 minutes on a boat in the Napo river one gets to see hundreds of parrots come down to the clay lick, to, you guessed it, lick the clay to cure their stomach ailments. As with all things in nature there is nothing predictable about this. The parrots choose to come only when they feel comfortable that there are no predators lurking in the waters or on the lick. We were lucky to have witnessed this amazing sight!

#5 Canadian Rockies

Wherever we go, whatever we see, the Canadian Rockies remains our favorite. The Peyto lake below is just one reason among many others. Pristine wilderness, beautiful lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, and bears galore.

# 6 - Alaska Denali National Park

It is OK that the highest mountain remains shrouded under clouds perpetually, that you might never catch a glimpse of its peak even once during the entire time spent in the park. It was enough to be under the shadows of the mighty Denali. The last frontier for the grizzlies. The sheer size of the park, and the number of grizzlies is just astounding.

#7 Torrey Pines State Park

Home Sweet Home! The cliffs, the beach, the blue sky and the ocean. Nothing more to say. Just filled with gratitude to be living in America's finest.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Flag art

Nothing like the MIngei for a quick art fix on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Mingei is the name coined for “folk art” – wherein everyday objects used by ordinary folk is worthy of a place in a museum. A preservation for posterity of everyday life from the past. I have dragged my daughter along to her share of museums everywhere from The Getty, The Louvre, Musee De Orsay, LACMA, the Huntington, and the local museums here and if she has to pick her favorites, I think she will pick Mingei first and the Orsay as her second. 
Let a child mess with a pepper tree once so they won't do it again. Messing with the #4 company is like trying to defeat a crocodile

The clever Anasi rules here
Loved this one as it had a woman leading a company!

Trust this company to protect and care for the diverse chicks
The Mingei, because of its focus on folk art makes it very approachable to everyone and you don’t need to have a degree in art history or know your periods or the difference between Monet and Manet, to spend an afternoon gazing there. Also due to their focus on folk, they exhibit art from around the world. The "artists" are everyday people and mostly remain unknown, so there is no pressure on the viewer to acknowledge something as a masterpiece even if it doesn’t feel that way just because of the name at the bottom. 

The mighty antelope wins the stool
Only a brave man will stand under a big tree
This week we went to see the 36 Asafo flags from Ghana that were on display.  The “Asafo” were military organizations that wielded power over towns in Ghana. These organizations were often in violent conflict with each other and their flags depicted either proverbs or sayings that were intended to put fear into the heart of their enemies. These days this has morphed into friendly competitions and rivalries.  

Think twice before taking on the eagles
Flags by their nature are political symbols and are often used in ceremonial associations. So I’ve never viewed flags as art and never associated art with armed militia, but these flags made me change my mind. The flags were used as tools to communicate ideas and customs in what was primarily an oral culture. The influence of Colonialism is also seen by the Union Jack on some of these flags (those made before Ghana’s independence). These cotton flags showed appliqued designs mainly of birds and hence appealed to me a bit more than usual.

Trust the female spirit to protect you

The wise owl who brings you luck
And then as always Mingei invited us to create our own art inspired by what we saw. I usually stay away from “art making” as I am quite terrible at it. Elementary school ‘needle and thread’ efforts have left me with very little confidence about my abilities except perhaps sewing on a loose button. But this time my daughter cajoled me into getting my hands dirty. Obviously we both went for birds, and obviously one can easily tell what her bird was – an owl, and obviously one can barely guess what I made. 

She came up with the idea of communicating a message through the flags we made. Hers was a noble one. She wants more people to love owls, and so she added a clover to hers to indicate owls can bring luck. I was struggling with mine. She thought, given the comical nature of my bird (kilew – let’s see if you can guess from the word blend which two birds are combined here), maybe I should make it a fire-eating kilew, that creates dread in the hearts of those who catch a glimpse of it.

If you are not frightened by the Kilew, I am sure you are positively frightened by my stitches. This is the stuff nightmares are made of!
The fire eating curlew who looks like a kiwi (hence Kilew)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Books of January

While Mr. George RR Martin continues to demand every free minute I can spare with his brilliant Songs of Ice and Fire saga I found myself wanting to slow down from the feverish pace of the Storm of Swords and Feast of Crows with a number of "speed bumps" (and I mean that as a compliment) - books that are slow, haunting and savored and set a million miles away from Westeros.

Louise Erdrich was first introduced to me by a friend from the blogosphere, and since then she has quickly risen to become one of my favorite writers. Meditative, dark and funny at the same time I feel all her novels have the tendency to stir something in one's soul. I was mesmerized by the Painted Drum and Plague of Doves, that I don't know why I took so long to read "The Roundhouse" which picks up the stories of some of the characters from Plague of Doves. A violent rape (as though there is any other kind) in a reservation opens the novel and the effect it has on the close knit family and the community forms the crux of the novel, which is told from the point of view of the 13 year old son (Joe) of the victim. The politics of jurisdiction, rights of the Native people and the role of law should have made this novel a very political one, but by centering the story around Joe and his attempt to seek vengeance when justice fails his family it becomes a personal coming of age story instead of political. Mooshum is one of my favorite characters of all time and now I have to add Joe's friend Cappy to that list. Something about the book reminded me of River Phoenix's movie "Stand by Me".

J.G.Farrell's empire trilogy has long been on my book wish list, and I finally got to read Troubles this month. Troubles won the Lost Booker prize back in 1970s and details the collapse of The Majestic hotel in Kilnalough Ireland in the 1920s as a proxy for the collapse of the British Empire. If the background of the story was not the actual Troubles you could mistake it for a Wodehousian novel poking fun at the elitist British upper class. The Spencers who own the hotel are strong unionists, and the Major who arrived in Ireland following his "fiancee" is a confused spectator. While the rest of Ireland is erupting and regular clashes between the SInn Feiners and Unionists form the backdrop, the people staying in the Majestic are caught in their personal microcosmic drama while at the same time being touched by the events on the fringe. As all order collapses in the outside world, The Majestic reflects that and starts collapsing itself. The ending is no fairytale, which is true about the ending of many empires around the world. Although a bit dragging in some sections, the book is worth one's time.

I came to the audiobook version of "Third Policeman" on seeing a Facebook recommendation by the amazing Neil Gaiman. The Third Policeman is a cult classic by Flann O'Brien but Neil Gaiman was correct to recommend the audiobook version - read by Jim Norton. One has to listen to it for the voices and accents that Jim Norton has brought to life. The story is a big "pancake conundrum", with a combination of murder, physics, philosophy and bicycles. Reading this would've been fun, but listening to it was simply top notch!

Last book for this month is one of President Obama's favorites - "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson. If the Roundhouse was a speed bump this was stop and go traffic on the 405, but still very enjoyable. Set in the small town of Gilead in Iowa, the story is about John Ames a 70+ preacher who is dying due to a failing heart. As he approaches death he wants to leave behind letters to his 7 year old son so he can "speak" to him from the great beyond as his son enters adulthood. Through these letters we learn about his past, his pacifist father and his fiercely abolitionist grandfather who were all preachers. When the prodigal son of his best friend returns to Gilead, John Ames fears that his namesake would exert a negative influence over his son and his wife especially after his time. A story about religion, spirituality, liberal vs conservative values, politics of color and fathers and sons, I found the book quite captivating that I wouldn't mind being with it when stuck on the freeway.

That along with the two books from George RR Martin wrapped up my January. Daughter and I have also wrapped up "The Two Towers". I have paused in my reading of The Antropocene, but hope to get back to it soon. Edna O'Brien and Neal Stephenson are leading the charge for next month. More on that later.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

To catch the time thief

3 months seem to have been stolen from me by the infamous Time Thief as i finally (re)turned to my blog today. I decided that the best way to get this done is to actually begin, and so here I am. Family, work, Netflix (more or less in this order) took up my 3 months and now as I try to recall everything that I read I am having a hard time.

So before I start, here is a glimpse of my reading pile by my bedside - more a memory aid for me for the future.

As I mentioned in my September post I worked through three books in October - Slade House by David Mitchell, Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood and Sorcerer to the crown by Zen Cho. I preferred the books in the same order that I have listed them.

Slade House - what can I say? David Mitchell can't seem to do anything wrong according to me! My only complaint was that this book was too short and not scary enough. After having read Cloud Atlas, Thousand Autumns, Bone Clocks, I wanted more pages, more visitors to the mysterious Slade House, more portals, more scary stuff and more of Marinus.

Heart Goes Last is another dystopian world view by the prolific Margaret Atwood. After the collapse of the world economy, people live in cars eking out a living in whatever way they can. So when the Positron project promises clean sheets, comfortable beds and full time employment why would anyone pass up on this opportunity! The only catch is that your year is spent in two distinct periods like a modern day King Vikramaditya. You have full employment for 6 months, and then you spend 6 months in a prison within the community - not the type of prisons you see in Hollywood movies, more the type you might see in Scandinavia. As with all Atwood novels there is a lot of dark humor, and weird science (most of which is already real in some shape or form). A fast read, not as fantastic as the MadAddam trilogy, still enjoyable.

Sorcerer to the Crown was the most talked about book among fantasy fans and its release was highly anticipated.  England is facing a magical crisis as some kind of squabble with the fairies has led to a reduction in magic. Politically England is also dealing with France (non-magically) and the kingdom of Janda Baik (magically). It is also the time when women are not allowed to practice magic openly and are usually sent to a finishing school of sorts so they learn how to control their "unfortunate" magical abilities. Not a great time for the Sorcerer Royal to die and have his adopted black son Zacharias succeed him to the post. How does Zacharais deal with all these issues? He has a bit of a help from Prunella Gentleman - also dark skinned, and a rebel who wants to escape her finishing school and actually practice magic. Feminist fantasy novel, still it didn't manage to ensnare me. Maybe the hype was a bit too much and raised my expectations too high for Ms.Cho to jump over.

November and December I spent with Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings and am about 1/3rd done with Storm of Swords. I am officially now a fan, completely hooked by the plot and following the fates of all the different clans and dragons. Very medieval so needless to say there is a lot of death, murder, rape, war, and even incest, but there are enough strong women characters to keep me interested and the plot is just amazing! I don't think I will be able to watch the HBO series though as some things are best left to words than to pictures. I am now taking a break from the books and reading a couple of Wodehouses just for a change.

Also read Corsairs for OBOC- Qatar by Abdulaziz-Al-Mahmoud. Set in early 19th century in the Arabian peninsula, it is a great piece of historical fiction. Britain is trying to get control of the waters around the peninsula as it is an important trade route from India, so as usual they enter into many shifting alliances. Wahabbism is also gaining popularity in the region and Britain wants to use the pirate Erhama Bin Jaber to help them achieve their strategic aims while forming an alliance with Oman, Persia and Egypt. Erhama is his own man and refuses to join the English and only wants to pursue his personal vendetta. Erhama's son strikes an unlikely friendship with an English Major who is the custodian of a priceless sword to be used to seal the deal with Egypt. A very well written book and is a must-read for anyone trying to understand the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula. Although it is fiction, there are lessons here that could apply even today as politics makes strange bedfellows.

These are the only books I recall having read in the past 3 months. I have more to write about other things (especially the unprecedented floods in Chennai and my short visit back home), but that requires more thought. Today I just wanted to get started with blogging and free myself from the captivity of the time thief.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hits and Misses

The last month has been one of hits and misses for me in terms of the books I picked up. Reminded me of a quote I read somewhere "There comes a time when you have to choose between turning the page and closing the book".

As the Booker longlist was announced I couldn't wait to read some of the books that made the list. By the time I sat down to write this post, the shortlist was announced and none of the books I had read (completely) made the list.

Started with Anne Enright's "The Green Road", a woman Irish writer, I can't believe I had not read her before! The Madigan family's trials and tribulations are traced over the course of many decades and we see Ireland's boom and bust cycles as we go through the decades. The novel is told in different voices (from the point of view of each child) over different time frames. So each chapter seems to be a short story with a loose connection to the previous ones. As the children grow up and some leave Ireland we travel along with them to the US and even Africa. The final action takes place once again in Ireland as the four Madigan children (Dan, Constance, Emmet and Hannah) are forced to come together as their mother decides to sell their childhood home. I should say I liked the sections set in Ireland the best and found the US and Africa sections a bit tedious - decided to turn the page instead of closing the book, but it left me wanting.

Then I picked up "The Moor's Account" by Laila Lalami. The book tells the story of the little known (at least to me) attempt by the Conquistador Panfilo de Navraez to capture Florida coast and claim it for the Spanish crown back in 1527. The journey starts out with 600 people and ends with 3 survivors, one of whom is the Moroccan slave Estebanico who is the narrator of this novel. The Moor is trying to provide a more honest version of what really happened as opposed to the sanitized version of the expedition supplied by the other two "gentlemen". Facing death, disease, and starvation the survivors managed to get from Florida to Mexico where they are eventually rescued thanks to the many Indian tribes they meet along the way - some hostile, but most willing to provide some food and shelter in exchange for labor or gifts. I enjoyed Estebanico's (formerly Mustafa) backstory, how he sold himself to slavery due to poverty, and then spent the rest of his time trying to get himself out of that state. It is also a story about stories and words - how powerful they are. Overall this was one where I kept turning the page, and I am sad it didn't make the short list.

"Satin Island" which has made the short list was one that definitely was not my cup of tea. I closed the book half way through, as it was more form over function, style over substance kind of book similar to "A visit from the goon squad" the 2011 pulitzer winner. If this one wins the Booker and someone explains to me why maybe i will revisit it, but that seems unlikely.

The non-fiction of the month was "Brilliant Green: The surprising history and science of plant intelligence". It is a short and easy read even for someone who might not be scientifically minded. Stefano Mancuso is a valiant defender of plants and wants to bring to light the step-daughterly treatment they have been receiving from humans who don't seem to understand that without plants their future would be pretty bleak! The book gives us a cliff notes type overview of the scientific discoveries in the last few decades pertaining to plant intelligence, sensing, social behavior. Very thought provoking, and yes while I still devour plants, I am more respectful of them these days. One of the side effects, is that my 10 year old has taken to practicing her recorder near our raised bed in the hope of encouraging the plants in our bed, similar to "Mozart for babies" (which I never did!)

The last two books for this post gave me an insight into pre-teen/teen boys almost like the movie "Boyhood" did! Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and David Mitchell's Black Swan Green are both Bildungsroman novels that trace one year in the life of Paddy Clarke (in Dublin)and Jason Taylor (in the fictional village of Black Swan) respectively. Roddy Doyle won the Booker back in the '80s for his book. It was not an easy read unlike Black Swan Green, but both were very educational for me.

Continuing this theme of Bildungsroman and teenage boys, I am the middle of reading "The Fishermen" by Chigozie Obioma. If I were the betting kind my money for the Booker would be on this one! I am only about 2/3rd of my way through, and this is a hard to put down book.

October looks exciting thanks to Slade House, Heart Goes Last and Sorcerer to the Crown - three books I've been looking forward to for quite some time. Also after much hesitation decided to pick up Game of Thrones (the books, not the show) - late to the party, but want to see what it is all about. My curiosity was piqued because of the comparison to Tolkien.

For now daughter is into The Hobbit which I am reading to her for bedtime, and we want to move onto Lord of the Rings even if that's going to take a couple of years to get through. How long she will want me to keep reading to her at night, I don't know but I intend to savor it as long as I can and if Tolkien can't help me, no one else can!