Saturday, 9 March 2019

Mindfulness Journey #1

I have been on a mindfulness journey for the last year, attempting to be calmer, more centred, more present. It has had its share of ups and downs but I feel I have made a lot of progress. Last week, I deleted the Facebook and LinkedIn apps from my phone in a bid to keep the social media distractions to a minimum. It is much harder to check on social media when you have to get to your laptop every time to do so!
In the last year, I realized a few things (laughably obvious, am afraid). Mindfulness does not just mean sitting still for a few minutes every day, without electronic and other distractions.

Mindfulness is:
  • Going for a walk without music or earphones. Relying on birdsong, traffic sounds and one's own thoughts for company.
  • Sitting down to watch the rain
  • Folding clean laundry with intention and unhurriedness
  • Switching off wifi on all devices an hour before bedtime and getting them out of your sight
  • Sitting inside the metro and looking out the window during the entire ride. Or people-watching (in a non-creepy way, of course!)

And yes, this was the way we lived, for many many years, before we got wedded to our phones :) Back in those days, they didn't need to give it a name.

The good one

It is vacation time. We are walking to dinner. An argument breaks out on who gets to sit with me during dinner time- Ads or Yukta. It gets louder and fiercer. Finally, I decide that this time, Ads will sit with me. Yukta shrugs, walks a few paces ahead to catch up with her dad, saying " Wierd. She gave up the good one." 
#thatsmygirl #confidence #thegoodone 

A couple of days ago, I learnt that a job that I had applied for, and was hopeful of getting, had gone to someone else. The kids knew about my application and the 2-3 rounds of interviews I had had, so I told Y about it. Since I am a sucker for incorporating teachable moments, I showed her the email I had written, offering my congratulations on the new hire and offering thanks for the time they spent with me.

"You lost", she said, with the painful bluntness only kids can muster. "Are you showing.....sportsmanship" (this with a puzzled frown)
"Yes!", I said, delighted that she had got the message.
"That's weird", she turned back to what she was doing.
#honesty #outofthemouthsofbabes

Friday, 8 March 2019

Regrets and redemptions

I spent a couple of years of my childhood in Patna and in 1988, was studying at an all-girls convent in that city. One day, we had a new girl in class. A 13-year-old, British born and bred but whose parents had emigrated to the UK and were now back in their hometown. I suspect our class teacher had a high opinion of my English-speaking skills, so she put me in charge of this new girl. Little did our teacher know that all my encyclopaedic knowledge of British life gained through Enid Blyton novels could not help me one bit in understanding this girl's marked British accent!
I tried for a couple of days but I used to be cripplingly shy at the time, and her English intimidated me. Willy-nilly, we reduced our interactions to the purely transactional. I would give her all the notes she had missed and help her in understanding some instructions being issued by various teachers.
For the rest, I left her to fend for herself. My 13-year old self was preoccupied with my own friends and my own concerns.
Fast forward to exactly 30 years later, and Y, herself a new girl in school, is given charge of a Korean kid (let's call her J) who has recently moved to the US and doesn't know a word of English. My daughter helps her to a degree that fills my heart with maternal pride. She uses google translate, sits with J in class and during recess and becomes proficient at rudimentary sign language in order to communicate. She goes over and above the call of duty to help someone who is finding it difficult to acclimatize in a new environment.

I wish, all those years ago, I had extended the same kind of helping hand to my classmate whose name I don't remember now. I wouldn't now be filled with regret for having been indifferent to her plight! Looking back, I can think of a hundred little ways in which I could have made her school days easier.

In hindsight, not doing something also teaches us important life lessons. If I hadn't felt regret, I might have never learnt how important it is to go by the spirit and not just the letter of helpfulness. And possibly I may never have inculcated that spirit in my kids.

I console myself by thinking this. That in my non-action were sown the seeds of some good actions that followed.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Goals for 2019

2018 was the year of living more mindfully and more gratefully. As the kids grow older and as I do too, I am more convinced than ever before that what I really need to do as a parent is teach my kids empathy, gratitude, resilience and humility. Their scholastic and non-curricular achievements are important not in themselves, but only as pathways and tools to learn the value of hard work, grit and perseverance. I read a quote by Dr. Seuss recently - "It is better to know how to learn than to know." I strongly feel, that captures my philosophy perfectly. It is important to know how to learn, never mind if you fail to do it. But the learning makes all the difference.

In the spirit of learning, we all made a list of our goals for the year 2019. I hesitate to call them New Year Resolutions, because I know that as far as mine go, I am likely to keep plodding at a couple of these well into next year. Can you guess which ones they are? :) 

Goals for 2019

Exercise everyday - I've been walking and doing yoga very consistently for the last couple of years, so not worried about this one.

Meditate everyday - 20-30 minutes of deep breathing exercises and just sitting still. Again, not worried about this one. I do fall off the rails every now and then but find it easy to get back on.

Read a Tamil book - This is hard!!! But I'm on it :) I have a book of essays by Kalki, and am slowly going through it. Understanding about 70% of what I read. But the objective is to improve reading speed and word recognition, not necessarily understand what I'm reading :) 

Learn some Spanish - Not as hard as Tamil :)

Craft a family mission statement - We will probably get down to this in the summer.

Learn ice-skating - I've just finished beginner lessons and I suck. But hey, I'm able to get onto the ice and glide (very slowly) ALL BY MYSELF. Baby steps! I have downloaded an app that will make it easier for me to practice. All I need to do is to drive myself to the rink every week and get onto the ice!

Learn swimming - This is the biggie. I'm floating and moving a bit which is progress but nearly not enough. The family's behind me on this one so they'll keep me afloat (pun intended)

Teach S how to cook - Lots of progress on this because I have a motivated student.

Teach Ads to iron clothes, cut veg, make Maggi - I'll get this done. Might add a few more things to this list and make it slightly more ambitious.

Get on a nonprofit Board - Feelers have been thrown, hopeful this will happen.

We have a quarterly review on this next month - yikes!

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Pura Vida!

We had been keen to visit Costa Rica after hearing how beautiful it was and more recently, after reading about how CR is a green happy and sustainable country. So it was a no-brainer to plan a trip there for our first winter break here in the US.
I broke with tradition by booking the trip through a travel agent. I wasn't very sure how making the arrangements on my own as I usually do, would work out in Central America. Turns out, CR is super-safe and probably the only place in Central America we could have managed without any outside help.  
Our itinerary started with a direct flight from DC to San Jose, the capital. We landed from low digit minus temperatures to a balmy 23 degrees C. It felt so good!!! We were met at the airport and immediately whisked off to our first home for the next 4 nights - La Fortuna in Alajuela province. The drive was long (about 3.5 hours) and the kids slept off on the way, only waking up for a pizza lunch midway.

Lost count of times we have rigged up makeshift "curtains" in cars to ward off the sun falling on our babies :)

Check out the view from our room! This is Mount Arenal, which dominates the landscape in the La Fortuna/Arenal area. This is an active volcano which last erupted in 2010.

The next day, we set off to explore the Arenal Lake and got some amazing views of the volcano from the lake, and from a short hike around the Arenal National Park. Our tour included a 3 hour stop at a hot springs resort, which had looked great on paper but was far better in reality! The whole area being a hub of geothermal activity, there are several resorts which are amusement parks-cum-jacuzzis rolled into one. For the adults, there are pools of varying water temperatures, with fancy waterfalls and all - ranging from a very pleasant 22 degrees to a scalding 60 degrees! For the kids there are several slides - some of which fall straight into a warm pool. Y walked into this wonderland and immediately exclaimed "This is the highlight of this trip!!!" The kids were thrilled with a silly play structure which emptied barrelfuls of water on them every few minutes. I have to say it was strangely addictive when I joined them and stayed on, playing and splashing, for far longer than I'd intended. 
The hot springs were amazingly relaxing and after a few hours, our limbs tired, we showered and went back to our hotel, all set for a heavy Day 2 in Costa Rica. 

Day 3 - I had booked a hike in the Tenorio NP, a 7 km loop to see the amazing Blue river or Rio Celeste. It had rained the previous night so the trail, in addition to being narrow and rocky, was also very muddy and slushy. Fortunately our guide had advised us to rent rain boots so we were able to manage without slipping or destroying our shoes. I had been concerned whether Y would be able to complete the hike but she was a trooper and except for the very last half-km, did not need to be encouraged or prodded to keep moving. 

Day 3 dawned bright and sunny but we were hotel-bound as Ads was running a temperature. Fortunately I had designated this as a rest day (we need plenty of those on vacation!!) so we just chilled by the pool, ate a lot, played word games and took an afternoon nap!

Day 4 was our transfer to Monteverde in the Puntarenas province, a huge draw in CR due to it's "cloud forests". The combination of cloud and tropical forests in this area contributes to the climate which is misty windy and rainy and also to it's staggering biodiversity. The drive was long and meandering and as we approached Monteverde, we were greeted with stunning vistas like these...

The next day, Day 5, we went to the Cloud forest reserve for a 2-3 km guided naturalist walk along the treetops, complete with hanging bridges over the forest canopy. I had a mild panic attack on one of the bridges which was swaying dangerously in the wind but soon got the hang of staying calm while walking on top of the forest canopy :) We were disappointed in not seeing the Quetzal, the national bird of CR known for it's striking plumage. Apparently it's chosen food was not yet ripe and ready for it and it would be a couple more months before it would appear in the Cloud Forest!

We took a gondola to the very top of the cloud forest. We couldn't take our phones with us so I have no photos but suffice to say, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Huge clouds billowed across the sky, some skimming the tops of the trees and mountains, some bounding along far above. Everywhere one looked was an ethereal magical sight. In the far distance, the Pacific was faintly visible through the sheets of mist. 
At the top of the cloud forest, we all managed to complete our practice zipline easily. When it came to the actual zipline circuit, it was too high and intimidating for both Y and me to even consider attempting. I was pretty sure S and Ads would go for it but surprisingly Ads, who likes all the adrenaline-pumping stuff, was very hesitant to go one the zipline. Inspite of spirited urging from Y and me, he refused to go ahead so we took the gondola back to the bottom :) Of course, when we were heading back home, he said Oh I should have gone :( 
So that was the end of our fantastic Monteverde segment.

Day 6 - We moved to yet another province, Guanacaste. After volcanoes and cloud forests, it was time for some sun 'n sand! The plan was to sail, snorkel, catch some sunsets and just chill...which is exactly what we did! It was an endless round of eating, fresh sea air, long walks on the beach, more eating, swimming and hot tubs!

Costa Rica used to be know as the 'geek' of Central America due to its tech industry and its low crime rate. Today it is better known as an eco-tourism hotspot and also an ecological powerhouse. 6% of the worlds biodiversity in 0.03% of the landmass, 24 national parks protecting a 30% of the country from “development”. But more than anything else, what delights is their philosophy of Pura Vida- the pure life. CR invites you to kick back, unplug, and chill. At the height of the tourist season, never saw a single Tico lose their cool, yell or seem frazzled. Pura Vida is a way of life, an attitude, an emotion, even a greeting! Keep it simple, keep it real. 
As the Ticos say, Pura Vida and Feliz año nuevo, mis amigos😊

Friday, 19 October 2018

Teenager in the house

We have a newly-minted teen now! I started this blog when Ads was around 3 years old, so that also means my blog is about a decade old :) What a decade its been, since this whirlwind came into our lives! The first few days and months after Ads was born were filled with sleepless nights, pain, exhaustion and moments of pure joy as we fell in love with our adorable and exasperating baby. I have to say nothing much has changed since then! I still worry disproportionately about him, no one can frustrate and exasperate me as he does and he still fills me with immense pride and joy at the young man he is turning into.

Methodical, ethical, honest to a fault, puritanical, finicky, intellectual - these are all adjectives that come to mind when I think of Ads. His integrity, well I don't know where he got it from :) Suffice it to say it's very inconvenient at times! His penchant for following rules and his horror at flouting any, is a source of great amusement for all of us at home. He is obsessed with cleanliness and I have to tell him off for washing his hands so many times a day that they are completely dry and cracked with excessive use of soap. He can't stand disorder and untidiness, and used to routinely pick up bits of trash thrown in the common areas in our community in Bangalore. He still does it here :) 

My young man is quite unsocial. "Why do I need friends" he asks. Errr... so far, he seems quite happy in his own company. He loves science (physics and especially quantum physics is his thing), cricket, reading (non-fiction only). He spends a lot of time on Khan academy and has been teaching himself calculus and trigonometry. We keep asking him to work on the social skills (Make eye contact! Be interested in other people!) and hopefully it will make a dent at some point in the future, cos it ain't making a dent now, that's for sure!

As Ads enters a new phase in his childhood, I see in him all my experiments (failed and successful), my own uncertainties and struggles as a new mother. I am sure parenting this particular teen will be harder than parenting this toddler. So bracing myself for a wild eventful ride! 

Thursday, 18 October 2018

On creating a village

I feel like I've been the newbie all my life. The new kid in school, the new mom in the group, the new neighbour, the new employee, the wife of the new employee :) When I was in school, often I left after just a year. In the last 18 years of married life, we have moved 8 times. I have studied in 12 schools, held 6 jobs, moved cities and countries and spent vast swathes of time dealing with packing cartons :). 

The physical exertion aside, what has been hardest is to create a network and a community of friends/neighbours wherever we go. People who will have your back. People who will welcome you into their homes, tell their children to make friends with your kids,  provide sage advice on the best places to eat, shop and thread your eyebrows :) People who, as busy and as submerged they are in their own lives, stop you from feeling lonely and adrift. 

In my 30s, I realized I am unlikely to make any more good friends. My best friends know me from an earlier life- school, college, b-school, work. I'm too set in my ways to tolerate the flippant, the flaky, the ignorant, just because they happen to be neighbours or colleagues. In the 40s, most of us realize we don't have to please anybody or be a different version of ourselves in order to be liked. At the same time, we all need a village to call our own. I remember a playdate invitation back when Advaith was a toddler. We drove several miles to a very nice suburb, full of large houses and BMWs/Mercs parked in the driveway, to meet an Indian mom and her kid. I had nothing in common with the mom, but as our kids played and we sat nursing our coffees, I was struck forcibly by how lonely she was in that huge spotless house with no one but her toddler son for company. She seemed to know very few people, unlike me who had joined a large moms club and had plentiful social opportunities. I invited her to be more regular at club outings but she never came. I think she was too introverted to be able to make the effort.

I call myself a "forced extrovert". Years of forcing myself to make the first move, blend in, and make new friends quickly have made me adopt a veneer of confidence when all I like to do most days is sit in a corner with a book and not talk to anyone. I can talk loudly at parties and dance at weddings knowing that the only situation I am truly comfortable is with myself, some family, some close friends. 

Extroverted or not, creating your own village is important for everyone. A community of acquaintances and friends is critical, catering to different needs. Some friends are great for movie dates. Some great for a cup of coffee and general gossip. Some are walking or fitness buddies only.  Some you only meet at the school bus stop and nowhere else :) 

Often I have felt, walking into a new environment, that I was the one needing company, and help. It took me some years to realize that I needed to be there for others too, to offer help as needed, to be their village. I was needed as much as I needed others. 

In all these years, one thing I am sensitive to, is how can I help the other newbies. I know what it's like to be in those shoes. Being welcoming, helpful, caring to someone new, is rare. People are well-intentioned but their own busy lives and schedules get in the way and oftentimes, that much-needed assistance never comes, remaining just in the form of a few polite words. 

These last few months, I have set about creating my new village here, and have been thinking - "Oh no...not again!" :))

Saturday, 15 September 2018

A big change

We are in the second half of 2018, and the year seems to have whizzed by. December 2017 onwards, has been a blur of activity and busy-ness, and somehow, here we are, thousands of miles away from India, calling the United States home again for an unknown period of time. We knew the move was coming, but we didn’t know it was to the US. We had spent months considering a couple of options in Asia and Europe, never thinking the US was a possibility; when it was broached to me, it came as an unpleasant surprise as it had never been in my consideration set but there it was, suddenly popping up like an unwelcome visitor. 
It took a few weeks to come to grips with the decision, and accept it. It took more time for Ads to accept it with some resignation, his biggest concern of course being - How will I play cricket there?? I went through months of second-guessing myself. Did we have to move to the States in the current not-so-immigrant friendly climate? Will my kids do okay in public school? Wouldn’t they be better off in an international school, where the teachers and staff and students alike are all used to transitions? How will Ads fare in middle school (about which I heard nothing but horror stories?). This and a million other questions and anxieties kept buzzing like worried bumblebees in my brain, incessantly.
But decision taken, there is little point in worrying and its time for action not reflection! A whirlwind of activity ensued. Give notice at work, find my replacement, hand over to her. Our house in Chennai needed renovation as my parents were moving back. We had other home renovation/design projects. Research schools and places to live near Washington DC. Talk to people for advice and tips. Pull out the relocation checklist (again!) and start working on each item. For a few months I felt like I was shuttling between Koramangala, North Bangalore and Whitefield every second day, rushing from one project to another. It was sheer chaos and definitely, I could not have held it all together without my parents. In between, the kids finished up the school year, Advaith went off to a hiking and mountain biking camp in Yercaud for a week  and S and I managed a few days in Israel (more on that fantastic trip, later).
At the fag end, as we were rushing towards our departure date, I would have moments of sheer panic. Why were we doing this? Hurtling into the unknown, leaving behind all that is secure and  familiar and wonderful? Why, indeed, have we done these transitions, over and over and over again? The husband would reassure me with the reasons I knew so well, and which I completely agreed with. Yet, even as my head knew the answer, the heart rebelled violently. 
Now that we are settled into our new home, I have to admit that the transition has been hardest on me. Which I am actually glad about, because I worried most about the kids and how they would manage with the new environment in a new country. Fortunately, children are more resilient than their parents! I am very happy that they took hardly any time to settle in, make friends and now go off to school everyday as happy as can be. Y has even taken a Korean classmate, who speaks next to no English, under her wing! I, on the other hand, have done more poorly than expected. 
Everything felt hard. Learning to drive on these roads again, getting a drivers license, setting up the house, getting our life organized…..mostly I just blame the fact that I am older now and simply don’t have the energy to do this any more. I also know, that a few years later, if we get the chance to move to an exciting country, I will be the first person to jump at it!
Yes, replete with contradictions……..but what’s life without  some contrariness, some change and lots of new things to do and learn! One of the senior people I work with said, when I went to say my goodbyes - “I think you guys are very brave to move at this stage.” And I said - “You can call it brave or foolish, sometimes they are one and the same thing!”

Friday, 2 February 2018

The city of lights

A lot of people were surprised when my friends and I decided to visit Varanasi for a few days. Since I am quite irreligious, it must have seemed odd to many that I would want to visit a city, that more than any other, is so closely associated with Hinduism, religion and temples. But I am a culture-vulture above all else and I knew Varanasi was much more than its temples. It is renowned for its millennia of history and civilization, its music, its food and its textiles to name just a few. To me and my friends, it seemed that it would be India in miniature (which indeed it was). Barring interesting architecture, the city is quintessential India, with its noise, heritage, dirt, cows - the exquisite and the egregious peacefully existing side by side.

(Note 1: I will use the name “Varanasi” and Banaras” interchangeably as the fancy takes me!.
Note 2: This is a practical guide for planning a trip to Varanasi. No paeans here to the merits of travelling with friends - I have written about that here :))

We booked our stay at Granny’s Inn ( which is a well-known homestay. It has 6 guest rooms in an old house in the heart of Varanasi (a 10-minute walk to Dashashwamedh ghat). It is not for those who need a river view because its a 10 minute trek to the ghats, but if you like a nice authentic experience and homely food with locals, this is your place. Plus the grannies are very friendly and have an impish sense of humour! It was really nice when we came back loaded with saree shopping and they followed us into our rooms so that we could lay out the sarees for them to inspect and admire, just like we do in our own homes with our moms and grandmas! 

First - the Banaras orientation. The city is on the western banks of the Ganga as it flows from Allahabad, east towards Patna. All of the main tourist and pilgrim action is concentrated in an approximately 4 km by 1 km stretch along the river, enfolding most of the major ghats among the 84 ghats that have been constructed in the city. The 4 km stretch runs from Assi ghat, the southernmost major ghat upto Manikarnika ghat and beyond. Inland is a narrow and very confusing warren of winding lanes (called gallis)  which are best negotiated with a guide if you only have a couple of days. If you have more time, you can probably get your bearings sooner or later and of course Google maps does help (though it gets fairly confused every now and then!)

The first thing to decide is what you want to do. We had decided to only visit the 3 main temples - Kashi Vishwanath, Sankat Mochan and Kaal Bhairav (a couple others got added later). We wanted to do the Ganga aarti (which happens at 2 ghats - Assi in the early mornings and Dashashwamedh in the evenings). We wanted to sample all of the Banaras culinary specialties (though we underestimated the amount of chai and paan that would get added to the mix) and spend a significant time with handloom weavers. We also wanted to do a walk through the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and visit Sarnath. So our itinerary revolved around all of these places and our first draft was ready. I also like to do a couple of guided walks in most cities. Roobaroo Walks seemed to have good ratings on tripadvisor and were very prompt in their responses so I booked two of their walks and this is what our itinerary looked like when we landed. 

Day 1 Plan:
4/4.30 pm: Start at Assi Ghat and walk all the way to the end of the ghats (1 hour)
6 pm:  Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat (starts at 6.30 pm)
10.30 pm: Kashi Vishwanath temple "Shayan" aarti

What we actually did:
We were late in starting out so we went to a neighbouring chaat place for tamatar chaat which was okay but maybe not the best place to sample this Banaras delicacy (we never managed to sample this anywhere else). From here we walked to Dashashwamedh Ghat, for the first time understanding why dodging cow dung in Banaras is a fine art requiring speed, agility and grace! The evening Ganga aarti gets really crowded so get there early for a good spot. People view this from the water (on boats) or from the ghat itself (standing room only if you reach late). We reached at 6.30 pm and got seats on a boat so we saw the aarti from the front (as the acolyte priests face the river). It’s a theatrical production lacking in spirituality but very high on aesthetics, hence a photographer’s delight (they pray for world peace and the aarti has been going on only for the last 15-20 years). The aarti ends by 7.30 pm.
After the aarti our guide for the day (the major-domo at Granny’s inn, a young and super-efficient chap called Mayur) led us through the gallis, giving us a quick overview of the lay of the land and suggested a rooftop restaurant for dinner before the 10.30 pm aarti at Kashi Vishwanath temple. What we were told is that there are 5 aartis at the temple. The last one, the “Shayan aarti” is done before the Lord goes to sleep and the temple closes at 11 pm. It opens again at 3 am for the “Mangala aarti”.  All the aartis require a fee except for the Shayan aarti which is free and also attended largely by locals, so the most authentic. I wasn’t expecting much from the aarti but it was the most surreal and goosebumps-inducing experience of our stay in Banaras. For starters, it begins very abruptly. There is a sudden loud cry of “Har har mahadev” and then the songs start, with the powerful voices of the mostly male devotees rising up in perfect sync. My friend Suchi said it was a bit like a flash mob as latecomers entered the temple and joined into the singing without missing a beat. Bhaang being so omnipresent in Banaras, it seemed as though many of the devotees had imbibed this heady narcotic as they almost head-banged to their rockstar God. Whatever be the reason, the atmosphere was charged with utter devotion and infectious energy. Our Day 1 ended on a high note, being one of the unmissable experiences in Banaras.

Day 2 Plan: 
Roobaroo Walks
6:30 am - 9:30 am - South Walk description as below.
Starting at Assi ghat with a live performance of Indian Classical Music and witnessing an open air Yoga session, at Subah-e-Banaras for 15 mins each, we then set out to explore the ghats and gallis in the calmer part of Varanasi whose serene settings have inspired philosophers and poets for centuries. The walk includes visits to a memorial of a notable woman icon, a Wrestling Akhara of traditional Indian style, a 17th century house of a phenomenal poet, an Ancient step well, bathing ghats, and a neighbourhood replete with handloom workshops. 
Connecting the dots along this quirky mix of venues, the walk leaves you with a deep understanding of this oldest continuously living city in the world. Along the way we would stop for a chai (and witness the famous baithaks that happen over chai!), and have a breakfast of Kachori-sabzi and Jalebi - Varanasi's favourite!  

2:30 pm - 5:30 pm - North Walk description as below.
The walk includes a 3 hour exploration of the oldest living part of the city wherein walking through the markets and the gallis we understand life in the city - people's value systems, beliefs and elements of Hindu philosophy. At the ghats, sitting by the Ganga - we discuss the story of Varanasi's growing up - major historical events and people which have led to Varanasi becoming the spiritual and cultural capital of India. And then walking along the ghats, we then discuss some of their stories and at Manikarnika (the burning ghat) - the compelling take that the city has on death, and her association with Moksha. Weaving in and out of bustling streets, peaceful temples and traditional Indian houses the walk perfectly emulates the eccentricities of Varanasi and offers a great insight into the city's unique culture, history and its people. 

What we actually did:
The walks stuck to their script to the T. We were a little concerned whether we would be rushing through all these places without having time to stop and soak it all in, but the pace was just perfect for our group and both the guides were extremely knowledgeable. I would highly recommend a couple of walks in Varanasi to capture the real flavour of this fascinating city.  Among the highlights - the visit to the akhada, visit to Tulsidas' home (where the original Ramcharita Manas is kept) and Lohark Kund stepwell.

Day 3 Plan: 
5.30 am- 9 am: Sunrise boat ride (start from Dashashwamedh Ghat)
11 am onwards: Sarnath 
Evening: walk through BHU

What we actually did:
Our boat ride started only around 9 am as Mayur told us it would be too cold and foggy in the early morning (as it turned out he was wrong; we did a early morning boat ride the next day and it was just perfect). After a leisurely boat ride from Dashashwamedh to Assi ghat (expect to pay around 500 for 4 people, though it could be more if you arrange it beforehand and get someone to escort you from your place of stay to the ghat etc) and some lemon chai at Assi, we found our taxicab. Our driver suggested we go to Sankat Mochan first. Since it was a Saturday, the temple was extremely crowded and we only managed a quick glimpse at the idol before deciding to leave and head to Sarnath. BHU was a lower priority for us so even though it was close to Sankat Mochan we decided to come back to it if we had time after Sarnath. 
The Sarnath complex has 3 main attractions: the excavated ruins, the museum, and the temples constructed by various Buddhist countries. Obviously each of these are worth seeing but we focused on the excavated ruins as being the most interesting. This part of Sarnath is really serene and one felt like parking oneself onto the grass and doing nothing else. While there are a lot of guides wandering around, with a little prior reading you can manage the tour all by yourself. We parked ourselves for a bit near Dhamek stupa and just chatted until we got hungry and it was time to leave. We didn’t spend much time in Sarnath but you could potentially spend an entire day wandering around here. 
We stopped for lunch at a place called “Baati Chokha” which serves the traditional meal known as Litti with Chokha. Litti is a complete meal popular in Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is a dough ball made up of whole wheat flour and stuffed with Sattu (roasted chickpea flour), potato, or paneer, mixed with herbs and spices and then roasted over a cow dung fire. The Chokha could be made of brinjal or potato (maybe some other veggies as well) and the whole combination is eaten with lots of ghee. It is a complete and very heavy meal and we were unable to eat anything much for the rest of the day!
Our next stop was the most exciting - saree shopping! I won’t bore you with the details of the exquisite weaves we saw and learnt about, suffice to say we oohed and aahed aplenty and came away with our wallets noticeably lighter!
We skipped dinner that day in favour of sweets and lassi at the Blue Lassi Bar, a Varanasi institution. It was tough to decide between the 60 or so Lassi flavours on offer (many seasonal). The lassi is really thick and creamy and the toppings/flavours are all fresh (no pulp) and the whole concoction needs to be eaten with a spoon. My only regret is that we only got to go once to this place.

Day 4 Plan: 
We had allocated this day for weavers and shopping.

What we actually did:
We went to Assi ghat for the 5.30 am Ganga aarti (similar to the evening Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh but with far fewer crowds). We took a boat back to Dashashwamedh ghat and the views of the fog lifting away from the river, ghostly shapes on the water and the sunrise, were captivating. Back at the homestay, we got ready (after a breakfast of kachoris and jalebi) and set off to Madanpura which is a large weaving colony. We spent a few wonderful hours with the master weaver and his family who patiently explained the multiple processes of weaving a Banarasi saree - from the dyeing of the yarn, to the final weave (both handloom and powerloom). The hospitality of these people was endless. No conversation in Banaras is complete without copious amounts of chai and paan and this was no different.  We sat on the floor, admiring the cute kids who wandered in and out, drinking awesome chai and not knowing how to chew paan properly! The conversation wandered from Govt policy towards weavers, to the ancestors of the master weavers family, to the economics of the business, to Amazon! My moment of thrill came when I realised that the saree I had bought the previous day had been woven in this very workshop and I had one of the weavers pointed out to me as the creator of my saree! It just makes my purchase that much more cherished to see the person who wove it so exquisitely. 
We rushed back home after a much-needed break at Vatika Cafe (where I for one was happy to sample some blander Italian fare). We had decided to dress up in sarees for a fancy dinner at a place called Guleria Kothi  but first we went to Dashashwamedh again for the evening aarti. If we stood out during previous days, we must have looked quite a sight negotiating those narrow lanes in our “city” sarees, all hitched up to avoid any contact with the cow dung! We took a boat to Guleria Kothi and had a wonderful Banarasi thali, overlooking the river and ghats. It was a leisurely meal and we still had not run out of conversation. It brought to mind my son who always says - Why do girls talk so much?!!! 

A fitting end to our Banaras getaway!

Some unique "Banarasi" traits that we observed: 
- People love to talk and are friendly (sometimes too much so!). Try and strike up conversations and they meet you halfway very easily. Maybe being an all-women group helped but we came away with the impression of a city whose people are born storytellers. 
- When I tried to describe the city to others who have not visited, I struggled to find the words. It’s not a beautiful city, it has no striking buildings, the Ganga is there but it doesn’t have the majesty of say, the Narmada or the Brahmaputra.  Everything looks old and dilapidated. It is certainly dirty and extremely noisy and crowded. But there is a palpable energy and aura (call it religious/spiritual), indescribable but palpable, that lends the city a totally unique character. The sense of history is very strong in this city, the world’s oldest living city which has been destroyed completely a couple of times before arising in its present avatar. I think it is this very tangible sense of history and spirituality that beckons even the non-religious into its folds again and again. 
-At Manikarnika ghat, I was taken aback to see life going on as usual on the sidelines. Near to the several burning pyres, were multiple tea stalls doing brisk business. Behind us, strobe lights blinked as loud music played (devotional songs set to film music). It all seemed a bit distasteful. Our guide assured us that neither morbid curiosity nor nonchalance in the face of death, was the least bit unsuitable. Varanasi knows that death is an integral part of life and we don’t separate the two, she said. Earlier, she had talked about the four elements of Varanasi or the four purusharthas (proper goals or aims of a human life)  - moksh, arth, dharm and kaam. The well-balanced pursuit of Dharm (duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and "right way of living”), Arth (commerce, prosperity), Kaam (the pursuit of earthly desires, pleasure and the fine arts)and Moksh (salvation, spiritual pursuits) leads to self-actualisation and fulfilment of your life’s purpose (I instantly remembered Maslow’s hierarchy!). 

On our last day, we were sitting at Assi imbibing our daily dose of lemon chai. I look up and see 2 women, heads covered with saree pallus walking down the steps with lamps in their hands. A solitary boat sails past as someone sings snatches of a Hindustani raga in the background. The horizon is shot with pink and orange as the sun rises and suddenly I am filled with an unreasonable happiness for being there at that exact spot, in that exact moment in time. It was my perfect Banaras moment!

Winding up with a quick list of places to eat. You will most likely run out of meals and time in the few days you spend in the city. Pace yourself and some meals may have to be only sweets (or lassi!)
      • Tamatar and chaat at Dina Nath Chat Bhandar (Assi ghat)
      • Blue lassi bar
      • Vatika Cafe at Assi ghat for thin crust pizza and apple strudel (very good!)
      • Mallaio (made from milk froth) available in multiple places but only during winter 
      • Kachori galli 
      • Pappu chai wale 
      • Chaurasia paan near Chowk 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

It gets easier, but...

Ever so often, when we meet with parents who have cute babies or toddlers, I watch the husband playing happily with them and my one treacherous thought is - "Well thank God I'm done with THAT"! Don't get me wrong. I miss my babies, the sweet smell of them, their toothy smiles, their cuddly squishy bodies and their unbearable adorable-ness. When I look at old photos, my hurt turns over at how small and cute they were. Those days were precious and they will never come back. But I enjoy my almost-teenager and my almost-tween so much more.  

They grew up, and I grew up with them.

Different folks, different strokes. Some people like the baby phase, some prefer babies just turn into adults straightaway :) And I've always enjoyed the in-betweens. My sweet spot is between age 7 and 13 (I won't venture farther than that because I don't have the experience!). Young enough to still think the world of their mum, old enough to be sassy with her. Oh yeah!

Around this age, they still haven't turned into gawky adolescents, who (face it) can be unattractive and smelly. Atleast the fond mother can still see shades of the babies they grew from. I've spent the last several years telling the kids we won't celebrate their birthdays because I don't want them a year older!

You can have a real conversation with them. They have interesting viewpoints, largely unencumbered by stereotypes. And because they are malleable, you can express an opinion and have them consider it seriously and without prejudice (which is often a challenge with adults!). However, the downside....fully expect to not have your opinion treated as the Holy Word. They will challenge you and make you admit your own irrationality/unreasonableness/judgements. I for one always get pulled up by both kids on being inconsistent (laying down different sets of rules for different situations and often forgetting my own rules) and not keeping my word. It's not fun to be told you are wrong!

They can amuse themselves, bathe themselves, dress themselves and basically give you a lot of TIME. The most scarce resource in any parent's life, and suddenly you find you have oodles of it. My kids handle homework and studying on their own so I have very little supervisory activity in the evenings. They read on their own, and we have often spent hours just lying in bed and reading, with occasional diversions and discussions into what the other person is reading. 

We spend years thinking about when they will start full-time school so that we get some free time, and suddenly you have to count the years before he goes off to college (6 years in my case). Mild panic sets in (so soon! how could this have happened?) followed by a new-found appreciation of the time you do have right now (never mind we just finished a shouting match ending with a banged door). 
The teens are clearly around the corner. There are tears for no obvious reason, heightened sensitivity to parental or grandparental criticism, a lot of "You always do this Amma! You can never be happy with me!" and so on and so forth. I am sure this walking-on-eggshells routine is going to be more frequent over the years. S often tells me not to provide "constructive" criticism when Ads is in a bad mood. I should also not provide feedback when Ads is in a good mood! Because then he'll fall into a bad mood again! I laugh at this absurdity. When am I supposed to give feedback then? When he's sleeping?

Spousal differences come to the fore when parenting older kids in the way they never appeared in earlier years. Physical care is largely binary - something is either right or wrong. When it comes to emotional care, you can fall anywhere on a long continuum and that's when your individual values and viewpoints get exposed, sometimes even to your own self. I've often found myself giving the "right" answer to my kids and silently questioning myself "But is this what I really believe in? Do I practice this?"

This thoughtful parenting gig is hard!