And So It Goes

moving day

Relocation is a complicated word, and yet it doesn’t quite cover the excitement of a move, the heaviness of goodbyes, or the strangeness of watching your entire life get stacked and sealed in plain brown boxes.

Bubble wrap, tape, box, label. It’s an efficient process except the labels – ‘Books’, ‘Kitchen Items: Fragile’, ‘Frames,’ are such simplistic reductions of the stories and memories we’ve assembled over six years. I couldn’t manage it in a paragraph, let alone a single word.

It’s weird, sitting in an empty house that’s full of boxes. Full but empty. It makes more sense to head out for one last hurrah. We walk down our street, take out regular route, past a line of stores and a market, to our watering hole. I try to memorize everything about this moment, about this place, for later. I wish I had taken more photos, caught up with more people, done more over these last few days. I try to re-live the last six years during this last walk to town. It’s simple enough. It’s harder than it sounds. Tomorrow will be a hard goodbye. But it will also be the start of something new.

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Old Family Photos

Back when, the entire family used to gather at my uncle’s place on Sundays. Over a cup of tea, we’d chat, laugh and pick on each other. We’d boo at cricket scores (those were dark days) and hiss at the politics. We’d dig out old stories and laugh even louder. The old stories were never new. We knew exactly what came next, but it didn’t matter, they were always just as funny as the first time, possibly even more, enhanced as they were with every telling. I don’t know when those Sunday visits died out. It happened gradually, and it happened for a number of reasons: college, work, relocations, squabbles, new priorities, stuff. I didn’t realize when and how those Sundays dropped out of my routine; I didn’t realize how much I missed them, not till my last visit home.

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One of my cousin’s, back home after years, was clearing out the loft space above the kitchen when he rediscovered some old family photos – photos of us as kids, in pigtails, braces and terrible clothes; photos of our parents, slimmer, younger, elegant and chic; photos of uncles and aunts when they were just kids, eyes sparkling with excitement for things to come; photos of all our histories – the conversations practically come wafting out; photos that are real, that tell the whole truth, untouched as they are by the alternative world of post processing and airbrushing. He decided to put together an album, a family project in time for Diwali.

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The whole family is here – well almost. Whoever is in town, and back home from work, is here. In Mumbai, that’s more than you can ask for on a week day. My aunt is in the kitchen, stirring a ladle in a large aluminium pot, declining any help because ‘everything is done’. Tumblers of hot ginger tea are passed around. The rain hits against the living room windows, and inside the laugher fills up around the album. The album’s heavy cover feels as light as a feather as we go back to those days in the old apartments, reliving them over and over again. One memory leads to another and that leads us to what happened yesterday, which takes us back thirty odd years, which reminds someone of what happen much before that, which brings us back to my cousin’s living room, laughing and arguing and laughing even harder. It feels like the old days again.

The Buddha’s Eyes Always Watch Over You

I sit against a Tibetan prayer flag. Its red and yellow embroidery runs the length of the wall. I’m surrounded by vibrant Tibetan mythology – there are dragons, demons, flowers, and so much more that I don’t follow. From across the room, the Buddha smiles; his face is serene; those beautiful hand-painted eyes are a universe of calm.

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Kushalnagar is an interesting mix of typical south Indian town and strong Tibetan influences. The golden pagoda of the monastery meets the heady aroma of Indian tea and the bright orange of the Buddhist robes blends in with the potpourri of local colours. Stuck in traffic, on the way to the monastery, I watch local traders interact with Buddhist monks on errands. There is an easy familiarity between the two, a relationship that has seeped into the social fabric, blurring the visible differences between them.

The Bylakuppe Tibetan settlement, a set of camps, was established in 1960 in Southern Karnataka. It comprises of monasteries, nunneries, schools, and a number of Tibetan businesses. At the centre of the settlement is the Namdroling Monastery established by Pema Norbu Rinpoche. There are over 16000 Tibetan refugees living here. Many spend their lives dedicated to the study of Buddhism; others take to retail and hospitality, recreating a piece of their homeland, a home that most have never seen.

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The Namdroling Monastery is an extensive property. It includes gardens, dormitories, a bookstore, offices, classrooms, and a number of temples. Walking around the complex, taking in the main temple, the manicured lawns, the young monks going about their daily routines, the Buddhist chants and prayer bells in the background, is in itself an experience.

Stepping into the main temple, past a beaded curtain, is like walking into a silent explosion of colour. The artistry, the designs, the grandeur, all make the room come to life. Dragons soar from my side and flowers burst into bloom. On the ceiling demons are slain and all around evil is beaten out by good. At the centre of the temple, on an elevated platform, three large gold plated statues rise above us all. The Buddha, his eyes serene, holds court with Guru Padmasambhava and Amitayush at his side. Soft prayers float through the room. You can’t help but close your eyes and meditate.

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The Namdroling Monastery follows the Nyingma tradition of Buddhism, and is considered to be one of the most prestigious centres of Buddhist learning. Young monks, the youngest seem to be around eight, receive a solid education here – they cover both traditional scripture as well as the modern syllabus.

The monks display the duality of the world they live in – their traditional orange robes are matched by Puma sneakers. Their shaved heads are bent over shiny black cell phones. They inhabit the old world and the new, missing out on neither.

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In the souvenir shop outside the temple complex, a Bollywood hit plays on the radio. The girl behind the counter, a Tibetan born in the settlement, says she doesn’t speak much Hindi, but she loves the music. She hums along with the song, her warm brown eyes bright, and the blue stone of her earring sways to its beat. She pulls out a pendent I’ve been looking at – it’s a little larger than a Rs.1 coin, cobalt blue with a smooth gold/bronzed edge. It has soft, serene eyes etched on in black. “The Buddha’s eyes,” she says, her voice wrapped in devotion, “they always watch over you.”

Notes on Watching the Cricket World Cup Final in Zagreb

I wake up on Saturday morning to the thought – Oh Man, Finals!

Before I can put paste to brush, the blood pressure is up. There’s that knot sitting at the base of my throat. I feel it going larger with every hour on the clock. It’s a beautiful day in Zagreb – spring is here, and a cool breeze greats the new leaves outside. I switch on the TV.

The pundits say we have to bat first. We lose the toss, they will bat first. The knot is larger. Someone says Sri Lanka have a better bowling unit, Nick Knight says he has an image of Sachin Tendulkar, with the Indian flag, on a lap of honour around his home ground tonight. I like Nick Knight; I wish I remembered how he was with the bat.

We make a quick run to the store – cola, beer and chips. The streets are empty. No flags, no drums, no war-paint, no posters, no billboards, no street corner analysis, no one cares. I wonder if the few people out and about can sense our tension, our anticipation.

We’re having a few friends over for the game – all from the local cricket club. Only one of them is Indian. The rest enjoy the game in a calm only the neutral fan is allowed. I hear a car drive past, a horn, and chirping birds. On TV, Mumbai is inaudible.

It’s not like 2003. Zaheer is a new man. The fielders are young men. Everything is stopped, nothing is loose. Hope.

In the end they play fantastic cricket, they get a few too many.  The knot is so large it feels like it’s cutting off circulation. That much controlled BP is threatening to bubble up. India makes a bad start. I switch my glass of water for something harder. There’s little hope, surely. The pressure is gone. We watch for the cricket now. In the back of my mind, I weep for Sachin.

We order pizzas. Things are kind of going well. This new kid, he can bat. It’s still too far for a win, but yeah, there’s a fight. Who knows … maybe? The new kid is gone. The captain comes in. A surprise. He isn’t in the best of form with the bat. He middles it, and then almost doesn’t. He has still eyes.

He keeps things on course. We don’t say it out loud though; don’t want to jinx it, just in case. We laugh and talk like nothing has changed, from the corners of our eyes, we keep track of the TO WIN column. The number, it grows smaller and smaller and smaller.

Suddenly it’s under 100. Possibilities. Friends and commentators say India has it in the bag – we get even more nervous. I pace, he sits still. We scream – cheering the runs, begging the guys in the middle to stay calm. “What’s aaramse?” she asks. “Like, polako,” I answer back.

It’s going to happen.

We match the noise in the stadium, well almost; we  have good landlords, there are no knocks on the door or phone calls. We scream louder.

Oh my God, this is really happening.

I want to be home, in Mumbai, in the middle of this. But I’m in Zagreb, so I continue jumping in my livingroom.

India wins. I call my Dad, it’s his birthday. Happy doesn’t cover it.

The others congratulate us. It was a good final, after ages! Wankhede is going wild. Our smiles are just as wild. Too young for 1983, we finally have our own World Cup story in place. After the others leave, we rewind the last twenty minutes of the match and relive it.

As we head out, Zagreb is quiet. I want to whooo into the Croatian night, instead I smile all the way to the Pub. And all the way back too.

The highlights are on. One more time before we call it a night; like Knight said – Sachin, being hoisted on shoulders, lapping the ground, with the tri-colour – but better, much better, much much better.

I wake up on Sunday morning to the thought – Yeah, we won! We did! The reports, clips and articles can’t be updated fast enough.

On Monday order will return, as will perspective, but everything will have changed. The World Cup has finally come home.

A Window Frame along the Old Wing

I can taste the sea; the breeze is trapping grains of salt in my knotty hair. On the water, colourful fishing boats bob up and down, a bit more violently than the slow moving tourist ferries. Far off on the horizon, cruise lines and navy ships eye-ball each other, standing as still as a hot Mumbai afternoon.

It’s looks the way it always has – regal grey stone, red roofing tiles, delicate lattice balconies, stained glass, white trim, and a flutter pigeons surrounding it. At the entrance a moustachioed guard welcomes visitors, his uniform is a crisp white, his turban is red.

The sun hits my eye, forcing me to squint, as I look for the cracks. I see none.

There’s a workman, maybe a carpenter, maybe a painter – a fixer of some sorts, at one of the windows. He has one foot on the window sill, and the other against the side frame, at a 45 degree angle. His clothes look colourless, blending into the stone, but his hair is jet black against the white trim. I can’t see if he has a harness, but he works with the assurance of one. He doesn’t look out even once.

It’s only when I pay (extra) close attention to his workspace that I can make out the new paint from the old. The difference is subtle, and will be lost in a few months of morning smog and a healthy monsoon – nature the great leveller, hiding scars and restoring colour.

When he hops back into the room and shuts the window, I try to trace the lines again, to find the restored window frame along the old wing. But it’s not easy. I find it, I lose it, I find it, I lose it. Soon my eyes hurt so I stop looking for it.

I had wondered if I’d sense a change, physical or emotional, or something entirely new and complex, but it’s how it always has been around this corner –the noise, the sea, the tourists, the crowds – the only visible difference are the vendors on the sidewalk selling miniature commandos – these moving plastic toys are dressed in army fatigues; they crawl on their stomach, their bodies rubbing against the hard ground, their guns pointing towards an unseen enemy.

Coffee, Crickets and More – Kerala in Pictures

Kerala. Everything is quiet, even in the noise. My mind is calm, even though there are a hundred things racing by. Maybe it’s the green colour that stretches on for miles – I see green from the blue train; I see green from the bedroom window; I see green as we cross milestones. I see green when I shut my eyes.

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The yellow classroom stands on an elevated patch of land, the grilled window eye-to-eye with the traffic light. The classroom is almost empty. Kids seem to be filtering out; it must be break. They see our bags, held by rope and tarp, on the carrier. Then they see the camera. They are quick to band together and pose. They flash peace signs and smiles. As the light turns green, they wave us off and disperse.

Growing up I had a book of Indian folktales that I absolutely loved. It was hard bound, and the pictures were watercolours, vivid and bright. The stories were usually set in small towns and villages, and came tailor-made with a moral. The villages usually looked like this. I feel like a child again.

The sign board announces timings for the last boat/raft within the park premise. It covers all bases – English, Hindi, Malyalam, and two other languages, I think. I understand the Hindi and English. The parks department should have invested in a proof reader. These are dangerous times for grammar.

Life in these parts is counter-fitted against the sprawling plantations. I’m driving past a tea estate that extends on either side. Little bits of tea hedges fit together like Lego pieces. Farm hands are busy at work. When the red bus passes by they all look up, maybe in search of familiar faces, or just in need of timely distractions.

I imagine the crashing waterfall and rustling leaves make for a very romantic setting. There’s even a soft breeze flowing. The stream of voyeuristic tourists, though, can be a problem. As it turns out, it’s not that much of a problem.

I walk over a few black ants, tens of black ants crawl across my foot – all parties involved panic, on the way to the tree house. This used to be yet another plantation, but a few years ago the owners decided to convert it into a plantation-resort. Inside there’s room for a double bed, a television and a fully equipped bathroom. The windows open up to dark green birdcalls.

Kuruva Island is a protected reserve – all around us there are trees, mostly bamboo, water and monkeys. Walking under the trees, a peaceful silence takes over, but when a slight breeze comes around, and stretches past the tightly packed bamboo plants, a million wind chimes begin to play.

The variety of coffee grown in these parts is Robusta. The fruits start off as glossy green before ripening and turning red. I can’t get my head around it. This bright, cheerful fruit that hints at things sweet and juicy, is a far cry from the strong, brown coffee that punctuates my day. It’s funny how things start off and where they end.

It’s not a good idea to walk through a plantation right after a night of heavy rain. The ground is treacherous. It gives way and I’m left grappling for balance. Eventually I do slip. The mess is monumental. Still the storm brought down a banana plant, and a bunch is ripe for the picking.

It’s a small, beautiful temple. Its facade is decorated with ornate sculptures, intricate designs and mythology. The priest, a young man in a white kurta and dhoti, requests that we don’t take photos within the temple complex as he goes about chanting prayers, lighting diyas and incense sticks; inside the little flames dance in quiet grace.

Resolutions and Celebrations

I spent the days by the stove. I roasted gram flour, measured sugar, melted unsalted butter, crushed cardamoms and shaped them into sweetmeats.

In the evenings I lit tealights and arranged them around the house –along the stairs, by the door, around the centre table, in front of the Ganesh idol.

I logged onto facebook and signed into my email account. I dialled in numbers on Skype. In the silence of my study I wished family and friends a very “Happy Diwali,” feeling every square mile of distance as the muffled sound of firecrackers filtered through.

Next year, I promised myself, I’ll go home.

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I am up at 5:00 am, woken not by the alarm but by the Diwali crackers. The kids are already out, bathed and dressed in new clothes, burning through this year’s pile of firecrackers.

The house smells warm and festive – of mithai and filter coffee. The earthen lights, diyas, are in place all along the house, both inside and out. “Happy Diwali,” I say a bit too loudly. “Happy Diwali,” they answer back, amused.

Seasons’ greetings and New Year wishes collect in multiple cell phones. The annoying ringtones are drowned out by exploding crackers. By sundown the sky is multi-coloured and the smoke is as thick as a winter blanket. I don’t enjoy crackers, but I’d rather watch them exploding from the terrace than listen to them muffled over Skype.

It’s Diwali; I am glad to be home.

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This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.