Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Of Birds and Bees

These are uninspiring times if you go by the sociopolitical situation in this country. I am not saying this is a time for inaction,  just that we live in uninspiring times. So I’ve stayed away from writing except when required, but this weekend was very different. The Bird Festival was in town and it was a privilege to spend some time with winged creatures who soar to much greater heights than many of our so-called leaders. My daughter and I attended a workshop on birding by ear, which on the face of it appears pointless to a person who has hearing issues, but that didn’t stop me. It was a fantastic workshop as it gave me some insights into the language and music of birds. As we went into the field to practice our newly acquired skills we were blessed with a sight of a Great Horned Owl mother sitting diligently on her clutch. The dad was nowhere to be seen, but she knew she could count on him to bring in the bacon so to speak at dusk.
The Great Horned Mom and her Nest - didn't have a good camera and wanted to give her privacy. So stayed at a distance
As we kept watching her, we wondered why does this image bring so much joy into our hearts? My daughter simply had two words “love” and “cute”. I couldn’t find any words. Then, that evening the Paris Review delivered this article into my inbox - on Sentinel Species. The article just spoke to me and put in words some of my own feelings. I cannot claim that my experience with birds is anywhere close to that of the writer. I didn’t get into this until a few years back, but I can see my daughter saying something like this in the future, if she keeps up her passion. 

Sunday night we decided to catch a glimpse of the Oscars. To be honest, I now use the Oscars just to help identify movies for my Netflix queue. But in the short time we caught the Oscars we saw the clip for “Piper” and once again the Universe seemed to have decided to remind us about birds this past week! Since Sunday we’ve watched Piper half a dozen times on youtube and I know we will watch more. Although we love Sandpipers, they were just little gray jobbers for us before, and were not one of our favorite shore birds. Piper seems determined to change that. Give it a try if you haven't watched it already.

I did say birds and bees in the title of the post, so before I wrap up, I had to mention the story I heard on NPR about bees. The scientist interviewed said “Bees, for example, can count. They can make decisions by weighing uncertainty, and can even learn to pull a string in order to reveal a hidden cache of sugar water”. But the phrase that caught my attention was “behaviorally flexible”.

In times like these, where we all want to just double down on our opinions and desperately hold onto our ideologies, the bees are showing us the rewards of being flexible and creative in solving problems.  With every passing day fascinating things are being discovered about species that were considered by humans to be lower on the pecking order, creatures that were thought to be driven only by instinct. This is a humbling experience and it reinforces that humans are just one other species on this planet and there is so much to learn from other species, not just for biomimicry, but also as an inspiration for how to live.

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)