History will Repeat

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(Photo credit: http://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/old_beggar.html?mediapopup=10434875 )

An old woman walked along the pavement
Frail, yet, her eyes darting restlessly
Bewildered and stricken, searching uselessly
For those familiar and comforting silhouettes

Soft wrinkly skin, and in crisp cotton raiment
Shining streaks of silver hair, and face turbulent
Probing eyes meet no familiar visage, and
Weakened ears hear no familiar voice

Her lips quiver, and her hands tremble
Her voice quavers, and silent tears tumble
An icy numbness envelopes. Am I lost?
Where am I? And my loved ones??

She sighs and a scary thought fleets in
Am I going to be alone from now???
Her legs shiver, and breath arduous
An inky darkness envelops around…

One more has joined the crowd
Of aged ones, touted as burdens at homes
Insecurities of life will rally around
Alas! Who can do this to Dads and Moms?

For one day tables will turn.
And you will be at the receiving end
And that day will bring floods of remorse
Of a similar act. Ah! History repeats.
(Written after reading about the sad tales of the aged folks, discarded and abandoned by their near and dear in the temple town of Guruvayur, Kerala.)
Onam Ramblings -2

Onam Ramblings -2

Onam is at a time when Nature is bountiful and beautiful, in the Malayalam month of Chingam (it is in August-September). The festivities begin before 10 days – on the day of Attham star. On the ninth day is the first day of Onam – Uthradom star, 10th day is Thiruvonam (the second day of Onam, by far the most important day), the 11th day is the third Onam (Avittam star) and the 12th day is the fourth day of Onam (Chathayam star). Floral carpets are made in the front courtyard of homes. Back in my home district of Palakkad, some even start laying floral carpets a month earlier, from the 1st of Karkadakom, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Onam.

Traditionally, cow dung is spread and the petals of flowers are laid on it. Many beautiful designs are artistically created with flowers of various hues. I remember that when we had cattle at home, it was easy to get cow dung. Besides, those days our cows were fed with natural food including hay and plenty of grass. Cow dung was vital and auspicious for all kind of festivities – it was used to plaster mud surfaces. The dung evidently was hailed to have a lot of anti-bacterial properties and even considered to be a natural disinfectant. Now, we don’t have cows at home. And the ones who have cows feed it with artificial feeds and very less hay and grass, which are its natural food. Hence, the cow dung procured is of poor quality and it really stinks. Hence we don’t spread cow dung as a base anymore. The morning ritual of plucking flowers for the floral carpet had its share of enthusiasm and fun. Here is a floral carpet that we made.

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Vadamalli (Globe Amaranth), Marigold and Hibiscus floral carpet

We stop making flower carpets from the ninth day – the day of 1st Onam. In Palakkad district we make clay models of Mahabali, called Madevar, and keep it in front of our courtyard. In the past, we used to make the models ourselves on the previous day of the first Onam. All of us, Mummy and all the daughters, join happily in the process. The clay, which is cleared from stones and other impurities, is mixed with the right amount of water. Beating it on stones, and keeping it broad at the base, it is given a tapering shape. The central Madevar is  bigger and the other two, one on each side is of the same size. The threesome are then laid on a wooden seat. The base is decorated with three steps. Then the steps are decorated with mostly Vadamalli or Globe Amaranth (the purple flower in the picture above) or yellow coloured marigolds. Once the steps are done, coconut leaf splinters or Eerkali is pierced onto the top and sides of the wet Madevar. This is done so that it is easy to decorate the Madevar with flowers – by next morning it would dry up and fixing it would be difficult. Besides this set of three, there are 4 smaller Madevars also that are prepared.

The next day, after taking bath, we decorate the sides where Hibiscus and other bigger flowers are fixed on to the splinters. Daddy would get lotus flowers from our pond and these amazing flowers will find a pride of place on the centre of the Madevar. Once this is ready it is time to keep the Madevar in front of our home. Mummy prepares the rangoli dough with rice early in the morning. She grinds it to a fine paste and makes it into such a consistency that she can draw the designs. It is a painstaking affair, but Mummy does it with such remarkable ease and élan. Once the design is done, Mummy reverentially keeps the Madevar in the middle of the design. Then puja is done. On a plantain leaf, banana, flattened rice and jaggery is served. The lamp is lit. Flowers are offered. Coconut is broken. Agarbathis and camphor are lit. This officially marks the beginning of Onam. Food is served to the deity before we eat our lunch and dinner. Mummy still does this very religiously. Salute her spirit and creativity! Our Mom rocks! 🙂

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Mummy creating the rice flour design to house the Madevar

On the Second day is Thiruvonam and we make another set of threesome Madevars and eight smaller ones. This time, Mummy makes a bigger design for this one. Plus we have to move the previous day’s Madevar ahead of the second days’s one. On the third day we make one big clay Madevar with four small ones. It is kept at the gate of our home. Probably three sets refer to the story of 3 steps taken by Vamana. Onam is such a festival that all living beings partake of the feast. Crows and birds to eat the offerings we leave in front of the Madevar. Even ants have their fair share nibbling at the rice dough designs. Every night after Puja, the Madevars are brought inside home. Next day all the old flowers are removed and new ones hoisted on them, before they are taken outside amid the design Mummy makes. Now, we find it difficult to get clay and hence the changing times have forced us to get the ready-made Madevars available in the market. We even got one made in wood by a carpenter. The work is easy but am sure all of us miss the joint effort of making Madevars at home. Sometimes it rains during Onam and then we rush to take in the Madevars. If it’s heavy, it washes away all the designs too.

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Madevars and the decorations

Onam is the time for sumptuous feasts. We have a wide variety of dishes and side dishes that we prepare to celebrate Onam. Plain rice is the main course. There are wet and dry dishes – Sambhar, Avial, Koottu Curry, Kalan, Olan, Inji Puli, Pachadi and Thorans (yummy and fingerlicious… I can only drool at Mom’s very tasty fare) form part of our lunch. It is interesting to note that all the dishes use plenty of scraped coconuts, a staple for us Keralites. It is also noteworthy that at home we never use onions, garlic and garam masalas for our Onam feast. Payasam is the sweet dish that is prepared. We make different kinds of payasams – the all time favourites being Palada Prathaman, Chakka (Jack fruit) Prathaman, Semiya Payasam, Paal (Milk) Payasam to mention a few. (Drool…) Another feature is that non-vegetarian dishes are a strict no-no. Even otherwise, non-vegetarian dishes are once in a blue moon affair at home. 🙂 Ona Sadya is always served in banana leaves. Salted banana chips called Kaaya Varuthath and sweetened (with jaggery) banana chips, papad, pickle and banana also are served in the banana leaf. Well, there is a fixed spot in the banana leaf too, where each dish should be served! Rich or poor, the sadya is such a key aspect of Onam that there is a saying “Kaanam vittum Onam unnanam” which roughly translates to “if you have to sell your property, so be it, but we must have an Ona sadya.”

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A traditional Ona Sadya – and that’s me, drooling! 😀

Onam times are get-together times too. Now all of us are in different parts of the country and me in Dubai, it is not always possible for all of us to congregate at home for Onam. Nevertheless, all most of my siblings reach home and spend the time with our Dad and Mom. We get new dresses called Onakodi. Women, wear either Kerala Saris or the two piece dress called Mundu and Veshti and men wear shirts and dhotis. It is relevant to note that the colour of these dresses is ivory or off white, probably in stark contrast to the verdant landscape around. We exchange greetings with extended families. Many people visit temples. However, we don’t go to temples on Onam days. All temples are throng with devotees and we hate going to crowded places.

In other parts of Kerala, there are lots of other games and celebrations like Vallam Kali or boat races, Kaikotti Kali, Ona Pattu, vadam vali (tug of war) etc. Boat races reign supreme with lots of foreigners and tourists teeming the backwaters of Kerala to witness the battle of oars and their rhythmic Vallam Kali Pattu or boat race songs. In central Kerala, especially Thrissur it is the Puli Kali that is the cynosure of all eyes. In North Kerala, Onapottan, the symbolic representation of Mahabali, in colourful mask and headgear visits homes, blessing households with prosperity and abundance. Palakkad has its share too in the form of Kummatti Kali and Onathallu. In our nearby village of Pallassena, there is this competition among Nair men. It probably owes its roots to the prowess of Nairs who were warriors in armies of Kolathiris. Onathallu enacts war-like scenes, with men engaging in physical combat. There are strict do and don’ts – so it involves a certain structured form of confrontation and is done under the watchful eyes of elders.

On the 3rd Onam Day, after the Puja, all the Madevars are brought back home. Nowadays, we wash, clean and dry them and keep it safe for the next year. The post-Onam Ayilyam-Makam, described as the Onam of tenants and labourers, is celebrated in Palakkad. this is 16 -17 days after the fourth Onam. This Madevar used to be a fat one called the Maksthadiyan. Along with this we used to make 16 small ones. We also used to make clay shapes of snakes, grinding stone and grandfather and grandmother too. In the rangoli that Mummy makes this time, she would write all our names and draw pictures of a conch, drum, wheel (Vishnu’s chakra), mace (Gada), lotus etc.

Onam is a harvest festival. I remember, when we had paddy fields, harvest times used to be just after or even coincide with Onam. The previous month (Karkidakom – mostly July), sees Kerala at its rainiest. I remember in my childhood, it used to rain and rain. Azure skies were never seen in this month – instead was dark and sombre, wet and damp. People were forced to stay indoors. Naturally money was so scarce for all, that they called the month “Kalla Karkidakom” i.e. cursed month of Karkidakom. There was hunger,  illness and starvation. Once the rains stopped, people eagerly waited Nature to shower bounties, and to celebrate . With harvests, money came in and so did Onam.

Now, we have moved away from being a predominantly agrarian economy. Instead, we have started selling Karkidakom as a month to do Ayurvedic treatments (and, it sells big time!), have converted it into a spiritually important month, with people reading Ramayana and visiting temples and shrines. We have even packaged our Monsoons as tourism packages. However, with global warming, even the pattern of the monsoon rains have changed. This year for example, we got much less rain than what we normally would – at least in Palakkad

Onam as a festival  is completely multi-sensory in experience. It’s a veritable feast for the senses, the panchendriyas. No doubt, we the people of Kerala, are quite proud of this secular festival, when all over the nation there is a veiled threat to its fabric. If you want to visit Kerala, let this be the time to do so. May the vibrant colours of the Pookalam, the rhythm of Puli Kali and the spirit of Vallam Kali bring you all a Happy and Prosperous Onam!

Onam Ramblings – 1

You can’t feel anything but blue, for Onam is just two days away. Thanks to Eid break, I do have holidays too. Airlines to India have an uncanny knack of doubling, trebling or as of now, quadrupling air fares during summer, holiday and festive seasons. Though the governments, state and centre, eagerly welcome remittances (the more, the merrier – much valued foreign currency!) everyone including the national airlines milk expats high and dry, with mercurial rise in airfares. So love as much as I would, I don’t think I will go home despite holidays. So, what will I do for Onam? Reminisce, I suppose is in order. And nostalgia is going to be the predominant mood.

If there is a festival that cuts across barriers of caste, creed, community, religion and gender, that is Onam. While most festivals in various states of India, based on the lunar calendar, are celebrated in different names mostly on same days, Onam is one that is entirely different. For example, Vishu in Kerala is the new year celebration which is known in other states in varied names – Ugadi, Gudi Padwa, Bihu,  Baisakhi and so on. To my knowledge, (I could be wrong – if there is, do let me know) there’s no other festival similar to Onam. It is nonpareil! 🙂

Onam is the festival that celebrates the annual return of the Asura King, Mahabali. Myths celebrate the rule of Mahabali (Maveli) as one of absolute bliss and prosperity. A particular song that describes the times translates to:

During times that Maveli ruled
Equal were all people treated
Times were of happiness
No one had to face travails
Sorrows, diseases weren’t there
Children’s deaths were unheard
No baddies were ever spotted
The land only had the good
No thefts and deceptions
Nor did any speak lies
All (measuring) weights and scales were right
And there was no chicanery.

If this is not an Utopia, what is? Probably, Mahabali was the first socialist leader! He was benevolent, wise, judicious as well as extremely generous. So much so that the Gods felt quite envious and insecure about his popularity. The mother of Gods, Aditi, approached Lord Vishnu (the Preserver in the Hindu Trinity and whom Mahabali was an ardent devotee of) and sought His assistance. Being of very charitable disposition, Mahabali was approached by Lord Vishnu in the guise of a brahmin dwarf or Vamana. The Vamana requested for some land. Mahabali gladly gave what was asked. The King’s preceptor, Shukracharya, sensed the identity of the visitor and warned Mahabali. But his word was sacred to Mahabali. Vamana grew in size and with his first step measured Heaven. With the second, he apportioned the Netherworld. The third step would be the earth and knowing that this would destroy the Earth, Mahabali offered his head as the last step. Pleased by the King’s humility and integrity, the Vamana granted him a boon. Mahabali is said to requested that he be permitted to visit his subjects every year in the lunar month of Chingam (falls in August – September). Onam marks the visit of Mahabali’s homecoming.

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Onappookkal – Onam flowers (from top left clockwise): Mukkutti (Sikerpud), Hanuman Kireedom (Red Pagoda Plant0, Thumba Poo (Slitwort)

No wonder then that the Onam continues to be a festival celebrated by all alike, irrespective of faiths! While there are concerted efforts at celebrating Vamana’s birthday (Jayanthi) in place of Mahabali’s visit, from some quarters, I strongly believe that it will always be a celebration about Mahabali, than Vamana. Sometimes even in losing, you win! That’s what happened to the genial Mahabali. He lost his Kingdom and got relegated to the Netherworld, yet, he gained eternity. The rains are over. Nature beckons. The blue skies, the lush greenery, the enchanting landscapes and the smiling flowers all seem to be decked for the festive time. And the eager populace (Keralites) to this day await his visit with much joy and celebration!:)

P.S: My next post will be about how Onam is celebrated at home… How I miss being home!! 😦 

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto

Mitch Albom’s books have always interested me. That’s how I picked up his latest book, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, from the school library. And when I began, I kind of lost interest. I started listening to English music only in the 90s when my daughter was growing up listening to and singing English songs. And therefore my awareness about bands, musicians and songs is pretty pathetic.

I remember reading Markus Zusak’s book The Book Thief where the Narrator is none other than Death. The author here cleverly uses Music as the Narrator. Music says, “However well used, I am a loan, not a possession. You give me back upon departure.” (Page 4) It simply can’t be truer! And what a hypnotic pen picture Music paints about how talents are bestowed at birth. “Before newborns open their eyes, we circle them appearing as brilliant colours, and when they clench their tiny hands for the first time, they are actually grabbing the colours they find most appealing. Those talents are with them for life. The lucky ones choose me. Music. From that point on, I live inside your every hum and whistle, every pluck of a string or plink of a piano key.
I cannot keep you alive. I lack such power.
But I infuse you.” Magical indeed. Speaks volumes for the master story teller Mitch Albom is.

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The story is the life of a great guitarist, Frankie Presto. The narration alternates between Music and the reminiscences of the who’s who of music including singers, song writers, instrumentalists and others like Darlene Love, Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Paul Stanley, Tony Bennett, John Pizzarelli, to mention a few, about Frankie Presto. It suffices to say that I thought Frankie Presto too was a real person. Only later did I realize that the central figure is completely fictional and his life is beautifully blended with real life events, giving it an authentic feel. Therein lies the success of the author and the book.

Some of the lines of Music are vintage Mitch Albom.
All humans are musical. Why else would the Lord give you a beating heart?
Everyone joins a band in this life. Sometimes, they are the wrong ones…
Everyone joins a band in this life. One way or another, the band breaks up…
Everyone joins a band in this life. Sometimes they reunite…
Everyone joins a band in this life. And what you play always affects someone. Sometimes, it affects the world…
Every loss leaves a hole in your heart…

Music’s chastisement of humans is so very apt. “You humans are always locking each other away. Cells. Dungeons. Some of your earliest jails were sewers, where men sloshed in their own waste. No other creature has this arrogance—to confine its own. Could you imagine a bird imprisoning another bird? A horse jailing a horse? As a free form of expression, I will never understand it. I can only say that some of my saddest sounds have been heard in such places. A song inside a cage is never a song. It is a plea.” Loved that last line!

Timeless wisdom from another very powerful character, El Maestro: “This is life. Things get taken away. You will learn to start over many times – or you will be useless.”

I am glad I persisted in reading. And my interest in the story gathered momentum. The lucid magic of Albom’s language is enchanting like the magical strings of Frankie’s guitar.

Loved the book and will give it 4 stars. This is only because I did not know many of the musicians. Aficionados of English music are likely to give it a 5-star rating. So if you are one, you will probably enjoy it.

The Four Agreements

It’s not every day that one reads a life-impacting book.
One that inspires. One that galvanizes you to reflect. Look within.
One that goads you to unlearn whatever you have learned so far in the journey of life.
One that exhorts you to take on a new trajectory by following a new set of agreements that will emancipate you from all self-limiting beliefs and fears.
One that helps you to be free from being a judge of oneself and others.

That is how The Four Agreements impacted me. Some books change lives. Forever.

Don Miguel Ruiz, the author of this book of timeless wisdom, is a nagual* from the Eagle Knight lineage. Toltec wisdom, is distilled and collected in the crucible of this amazing little book. Toltec philosophy is a path that teaches us to transcend our self limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging behavior patterns so that we may live a fulfilling and authentic life.

It’s is seemingly simple to follow the four agreements.

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However it is when one starts practicing it that one realizes how deeply our self-limiting thoughts, fears, assumptions and beliefs are entrenched. No doubt it is a powerful code of conduct for anyone who aims to improve oneself day after day. If you want to live your own truth, Don Miguel suggests we align ourselves to these: being self aware, being receptive to change and to nurturing the intent to make that change happen.

On hindsight it is remarkable to notice that two of the most amazing books I have read are little ones!  One is The Alchemist. The other is this one.

5 stars for this book. I will go back to it again and again. Loved it.

P.S: Just because I loved it you don’t have to read it. If you are on that path of self-discovery, am sure that the book will find its way, for when the student is ready, the teacher appears!

* Naguals (pronounced “nah*wahl”), native American masters capable of transforming minds are people with knowledge of the higher realms.

When Breath Becomes Air

It is from Mohanlal’s blog, The Complete Actor¹, (which I follow regularly – he does write about some very thought-provoking matters) that I read first about Dr. Paul Kalanithi and his book When Breath Becomes Air. I had decided then to get the book and read it during summer holidays. Thanks to Amazon (I must say a ‘Jai ho’ to the e-commerce giant for their tempting offers for book aficionados like me.) I was able to get the hard bound Random House copy of this book priced at Rs. 669/- for Rs. 339/-! It’s an absolute pleasure to get the books that you want at discounted prices delivered at home. Ah, it’s bliss!!! 🙂

Imagine this: You are a brilliant neurosurgeon. You also are a post doctoral fellow in neuroscience. You dabbled in English Literature, Human Biology and Philosophy and then decided to go ahead doing medicine at the prestigious Yale. You have a flourishing career. You are a compassionate person, rooted in values with a deep calling for medicine. You have a young and equally brilliant wife. And when life and it’s dreams are aligned to fruition, you take ill. And the prognosis? Stage 4 lung metastases. How would you handle this cruel fate? That’s exactly the sum and substance of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s deeply moving, intensely disconcerting memoir about his journey towards Death.

When Breath becomes Air

The last 22 months of his life was spent in writing the memoir and undergoing cancer treatment. The prologue of the book that went on to be a best seller for 75 weeks, begins: “I flipped through the CT scan images….” and goes on to give graphic details. But it is the last line in the first paragraph that is a stunner that takes one’s breath away: “But this scan was different: it was my own.” From then onwards, the book moves on in a gripping fashion, laid threadbare with flowing prose, with references to many gifted writers and their works and dealing with the existential question – how meaningful can we make our life to be in the face of certain and fast approaching death. There are pages that will leave you choked and with a lump in your throat. It is poignant that he stops with a message to his young daughter, who was born at a time when his life was fading, wasting away and yet he was facing it bravely and with integrity. The last days of his life are written by his wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi in the form of an epilogue. Dr. Paul Kalanithi passed away on 9th March 2015 at a very young age of 37 and after that the book was published by Dr. Lucy, fulfilling the word she had given to her husband.

It was painful reading the book for it was heartbreaking; yet, it was enriching and inspiring. Death is considered morose, morbid and macabre  – people shy away from talking about palliative care, physician assisted dying and death. The openness with which he deals with the “other side” – that of death – shocks the reader. When Dr. Paul Kalanithi sent his best friend an email in May 2013 revealing that he had terminal cancer, he wrote: “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” An ardent lover of Literature, he couldn’t have put it across more succinctly. When his carbon dioxide levels rise precariously, and vestiges of hope diminish, he even says to his wife, “I am ready.” In the epilogue, Dr. Lucy enciphers it: “Ready, he meant, to remove the breathing support, to start morphine, to die.” The camaraderie that the family displays when the icy hands of death strikes their beloved  ‘Pubby’ is paradoxically heartwarming.

This book will change your life. Read it. It will leave you with a lot of thoughts. Of living and of dying. At the same time, let me also tell you – it is not a tragedy, though it can be tragic when a brilliant doctor is lost to Cancer – he would have done a lot more to the living and dying, had he been alive.

  1. http://www.thecompleteactor.com/articles2/2016/03/gods-letter-2/

Dying to be Me

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) have fascinated me ever since I started reading books of Raymond Moody and Brian Weiss. The latter’s Many Lives, Many Masters, Message from the Masters and Only Love is Real were read with great interest and curiosity. I would like to believe that there are so many things that we do not know about. NDEs are of that realm. Besides, some of the accounts have been experienced and narrated by respected physicians that it is not only hard to ignore but is also scientifically intriguing.

Dying to be Me is another book that deals with the near death experience of Anita Moorjani. When diagnosed with Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, Anita underwent everything that a normal human being undergoes: denial, distress and then a gnawing, overpowering fear. She tried everything possible other than chemotherapy – many of which were conflicting practices that worsened her cancer. In the book she documents her journey through cancer, her near death experience and her miraculous cure which she attributes to the shifts within her that accelerated her cure. I found the book quite an interesting read.

Dying to be Me

What are the takeaways for me from this book and its reading?

1) Acceptance. Whatever you are faced with accept it and go with the flow. Yes, it is a tall order, especially when one faces trials and tribulations but it is good to cultivate the feeling that everything that happens is for one’s highest good.

2) Self-love. It is essential to be kind, compassionate and have empathy for oneself. This is most therapeutic – for, if we can’t love ourselves how can we love others? It is essential that we love ourselves unconditionally. Never be judgmental – of us or of others. Realize that each one of us is truly magnificent and never nurture feelings of inadequacy. No one is better than or worse than me. We are equal and there is an underlying connection amongst all of us in this universe. Yes, we are all connected.

3) Remove fears. Remove all kinds of fears that cripple and paralyze us for most of our fears are quite unfounded. They are limiting in nature and stand in the way of expressing our magnificent selves. It is essential that we just pay attention to whatever feels right at the moment and act accordingly. For this we have to train ourselves to listen to our intuition.

4) Change: To change ourselves, we have to start with our belief systems. A belief is an energy and when we allow our true spirit to shine through, we can create transformative shifts within us. And that opens ourselves to infinite possibilities.

5) Be authentic. Being a people’s pleaser or seeking approval from others at the cost of one’s own interests can have a disastrous effect on our authenticity. So is saying ‘yes’ when we actually want to say ‘no’.

5 stars for this book. I hope you read the book. 😀