Friday 30 October 2020

Biking trip to the Laurel Highlands

Drove to Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands to see the fall colors. After our successful debut long bike ride over the summer , I've been scouting for more scenic bike trails and we found the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail that winds over 150 miles through PA, WV, and MD. We did a small portion of that (22 miles/35 km) between the towns of Confluence and Ohiopyle. I wasn't sure that Y and I would make it, but we did! Not bad, huh? Of course, I couldn't sleep for 2 nights after that, my hamstrings and glutes were shrieking with pain!! But proud of this small accomplishment at my advanced age and it gives me the confidence to do more such trips with the whole family. 

The crunch of dry leaves underfoot. Red, orange and yellow splashed all over the horizon, on the mountain tops, and reflected in clear rivers. The nip in the air and the rush of wind as we biked alongside the Youghiogheny River (quite a mouthful, ain't it!). There's no season that is as beautiful and as enchanting as the fall.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Cricketing accomplishments

The big news in this household is that Ads recently made it to the Virginia State cricket team (yes, there is one! One of the very few state teams in the US). I am beyond happy for a variety of reasons. 

  • He continues to follow his passion, in a new country and new environment and has been pursuing cricket in one form or another for about 6 years now. This is the same kid who thought sports are a waste of time.
  • Playing at this level of competition gives him a definite leg-up in college applications (yes, I am a desi mom that way!)
  • Being a highly academically-oriented person, he needs an activity that will take him away from studies and books, and cricket has been that activity for years. 
  • An introvert benefits hugely from team sports. It provides much-needed socialization, soft skills, builds resilience, and helps them learn with loss and defeat with equanimity.   
  • High school in this country is stressful and children, starting from middle-school onwards, need exceptional time and energy management skills. If his workload this year is heavy, next year (junior year) will be even toughter with more AP courses, SAT prep, and college apps. Cricket will focus his mind, give him fresh air, exercise, and relieve some of the stress, which is what I am hoping. 
He came back from playing the Bilateral series on Sunday and I innocently asked him to take some rest. He looked at me with great scorn. "And who will do my work, Amma?" 
He worked that night until 11.30 :( 

Thursday 8 October 2020

Il terrazzo

The balmy breeze of the Bay of Bengal would swoop in around 3 in the afternoon, bringing some welcome relief from the oppressive heat of the day. And in Madras, the heat is almost always oppressive. After 5 pm, the terrace was the best place to be. Being so close to the beach, the sea breeze was strong and wonderfully refreshing, drying the sweat that had accumulated in those pre-AC days. The beach was a short walk away, not over fine golden sand, but through short grasses and dry scrub, coconut trees looming over the landscape until finally you clambered over a dune and saw the sea in its solitary majesty. 

We were rarely allowed to go to the beach without a chaperone. The elders deemed it too lonely and unsafe. Later when I did make it on my own, I wondered why. It was lonelier than Elliotts Beach but I liked it all the more for the sparse scattering of people and the wheatgrass and aloe vera juice vendor doing brisk business with elderly health-conscious walkers.

The terrace was my haven and I viewed it as my territory. Often I would escape there after school, clutching my school bag and claiming that I needed some quiet to study. But the cool breeze ruffled my hair, and I would wander off into teenage daydreams and fantasies. Sometimes these technicolor journeys would be interrupted by prosaic householder problems, like when my grandfather would come up to examine the water tank, a cavernous rectangular entity of great importance in family life. This tank was powered by a motor that sat at the back of the house near the jasmine bushes. The workings of this contraption were a source of great mystery to me. An air of tension permeated the air if the motor refused to start, or if the water tank refused to fill with appropriate speed. Then I would be dispatched post-haste to the terrace, to slide over the heavy concrete top of the water tank and peer inside, while downstairs grandfather tinkered with the motor and shouted instructions to me. Of course, many a time the motor worked with such efficiency that the water tank overflowed, precious water surging over the terrace and splashing down to the ground, causing much abuse to be heaped on the hapless person who had switched on the motor and neglected to switch it off in time. 

That Kottivakkam terrace is associated with such vivid memories. Our neighbour’s daughter was a young woman of great poise and modernity. If I had known the word in 1990, I would have said she was “cool”. She studied in Meenakshi college, spoke impeccable English, and was known to be a fierce debater in the college circuit. Although several years older than me, she invited me to attend a party she was throwing for her birthday, on her terrace. My first grown-up party invitation! Many boys and girls, all older and infinitely more sophisticated than I was, the twinkling fairy lights, cold glasses of Campa Cola and Fanta. I never met any of those people again but never forgot her kindness in inviting a raw 15-year-old to a college party. 

Sitting there on that terrace, suspended in space between the indoors and outdoors, I felt suspended in time as well. I brooded on my yesterdays, contemplated the present, and dwelt on my tomorrows. From that vantage point, I could see future horizons, hazy and indistinct, always filled with equal parts hope and trepidation. I wrote poetry on that terrace, my innermost thoughts curling and looping over white pages; years later, I flipped through those pages, now slightly yellow, and felt a rush of tenderness for that young child who carried a cauldron of jumbled emotions. 

My mind veers towards other memories of other terraces, other yards. The baking Barsaati in Delhi’s Green Park, which I only know because of photographs. Yards in Meerut, Lucknow and Patna and the only memories are of drowsy winter afternoons, luxuriating in the sunshine and snacking on red winter carrots, white radishes, and green guavas. I suppose we never sat there in the summers! Coming into the house after a couple of hours outside was disorienting, eyes having to adjust to the darkness after the bright sunlight outside and shivering inside the cold house. A rare birthday party (my 10th) on the terrace of our house in Padmanabha Nagar, Adayar. Playing musical chairs and some child giving me a pencil sharpener in the shape of a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Bar. What a treasured possession that was, for many years!

I suppose these yesteryear echoes lie behind my love of outdoor spaces. I like nothing more than to install myself with laptop and a cup of tea in the garden or patio and while away the hours. Sometimes I work, sometimes I meditate, sometimes I ruminate.

Today I sit in a red wooden patio in suburban Virginia. Once I sprawled on a concrete floor; here there are comfortable chairs, a table, even an umbrella to shade from the sun. There are no coconut trees, but only alien oaks and beeches. Certainly no sea close by. No dull-looking pigeons and crows, but bright red cardinals and flashy blue jays. But the balmy breeze is the same. It swoops in and ruffles the trees and shakes the leaves to the ground. I close my eyes and I am transported back in time and place. 

It took many years to travel from the Kottivakkam terrace to another continent, and that lonely teenager bears no ready resemblance to the woman I have become. Yet we all contain multitudes- our past present and future selves jostle for life and expression. The girl on that terrace worked hard to give me hope happiness and life; to her, I am forever grateful.  

Thursday 1 October 2020

Eulogy - 25 years later

Yesterday, my father posted about Kailasam
Thatha on one of the family WhatsApp groups. His father-in-law, my maternal grandfather, passed away exactly 25 years ago, after a brutal and short 5-week ordeal with cancer.  The post provoked a flood of reminiscences for me (though truth be told,  I don’t need any specific triggers to wander off into memory lane!)

Pinnavasal Sundaresan Kailasam (what long majestic names people used to have in the old days!) or PSK as he was usually known, was my favourite grandparent. Short and compact physically, he was a towering personality. Thatha was a typical Arien - warm-hearted, generous, energetic, witty, humorous, affectionate, with a fiery temper that subsided as soon as it had flared up. He also had a gorgeous smile, and to date, remains one of the most attractive people I have ever encountered. (What is it about some people that makes them very attractive in spite of not being classically handsome? A topic for another day!). 

A cost accountant, he started his career in the Ministry of Finance and later worked his way up to the top of the ladder in many companies, his work taking him to New Delhi, Dehradun, Kochi, Chennai, and Dubai before family issues forced him into early retirement. 

The logical numbers machine was complemented beautifully by the creative gene. Thatha had a masterly command over both English and Tamil and wrote more than fifty short stories and novels, many appearing in well-known Tamil magazines. My father says that given a few more years of good health and if not for the distractions of career and family, he could have become one of the best Tamil writers of his time. I like to think of his writing and creativity gene traveling through me to my children, and often think about how proud he would have been of his great-grandchildren. 

We were good friends, united by a shared love of books and reading and writing. I stayed with my grandparents for a couple of years in high school and he was the de-facto presence at parent-teacher meetings, stylishly driving his imported-from-Dubai Italian Fiat. In the early 1990s, a foreign car on the streets of Chennai was a wonder indeed, and many are the days when I would imperiously shoo off excited schoolmates pressing their grimy faces against the windows when the car was parked outside my school. One embarrassing incident during the time involved a group of us teenagers getting into trouble with our school Principal and Thatha arriving in state to discuss matters with the higher authorities, and bail me out of trouble. 

He was an insomniac. Reading late into the night, he would insist I keep him company as I studied or did my homework.  As I finished up and started gathering up my books, he would plaintively ask - “Done so soon? Why don’t you stay for some more time?”

Thatha, I have to wake up for school tomorrow!”, I would wail!

When he was diagnosed with cancer, I was in the final year of college. I well remember those harrowing times when I would be commandeered to babysit my twin toddler cousins while the adults were busy with caregiving responsibilities. In the final days of his life, and in a matter of weeks, this once -active and always slender 65 year old had frighteningly shrunk into a bundle of bones. On one such afternoon, I was watching over the kids who were playing in the sick-room. I realized that Thatha was awake. Too weak to raise himself, he watched the twins for a few minutes. To my horror, a tear slowly trickled down his cheek. In that instant, I realized what he was thinking. He would never see these grandchildren grow up. Our eyes met. We remained mute, but in that unspoken moment, inarticulate angry thoughts bubbled up inside me. I was shattered by the unreasonableness, the pointlessness of life, in a way that has not happened since. That was the only day I cried for him. 

He passed away a few days later and I remember my mother asking me, a little petulantly - “Did you not cry for Thatha?” But I remained dry-eyed. How could I understand then, as I understand now, that sometimes grief can be deeply felt and experienced even without tears being shed?

He bequeathed to me his love of the written word, and he introduced me to my favourite writer of all time, who used to be his favourite writer. Even today I cannot pick up a Nevil Shute book and not think of the person who first told me about No Highway and Trustee from the Toolroom, or who helped me pick The Far Pavilions, a book I devoured cover to cover while in my teens. We were regular correspondents when we lived in different cities (and countries) and one of the highlights of my childhood was receiving his letters, sheet after sheet covered in his frankly appalling handwriting. For a time, I even saved all the letters in a file named “Letters from a grandfather to his granddaughter” imitating Pandit Nehru’s book “Letters from a father to his daughter”.  

Nostalgia is like an elastic band. It stretches to accommodate loneliness, angst, heartbreak, and even happiness. Sometimes it settles on one, light as a feather, almost invisible and undetectable; at other times, settling like unyielding stone in the crevices of one’s heart. As I relent into a nostalgic haze, I realize that grandparents give us a rare and beautiful gift. They show us their most delightful side, their wisdom, their patience, and their bountiful unconditional love. A side that their children, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law, may not see that often (or at all)! 

Thatha was cheated out of a long and who knows, productive life. But, over the years, I know I am mourning not for him but selfishly,  for myself, and for what I was cheated out of. We were great friends, but we would have surely grown to be better ones. 

He was a wonderful mimic and would have me in splits while imitating random people or putting on an atrocious British accent. My daughter and he would have got along like a house on fire. In her, I see that same wacky sense of humour, an irreverence that makes for opportunely witty and sarcastic comments.

He would have been thrilled to read my writing, and I would have been excited to read his books and stories and discuss them with him. And I can just see him beaming with pride when my daughter’s story gets published in a magazine!

Isn't it fortunate that time is so forgiving? After people pass on, it ensures we remember them at their very best, healthiest, and happiest; after all, why remember anyone any other way?