Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This is the Day!

Around eight years ago, when I was at middle school, studying in Bahrain, my school had organized a summer camp in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. My parents were organizing the whole trip, so I was automatically included in the team. The week long trip included visits to wildlife centers in Bandipur, Top Slip, and Parambikulam Dam, all of which are well known among nature and wildlife aficionados in southern India. But the highlight of the trip for me was a visit to Avalanche lake, about which I have blogged earlier.

If you were to ask me to describe paradise, I would point out to Avalanche. Far from the glare of city lights, (in fact, not many people, even from Ooty and around, are aware of the existence of such a place) surrounded by the pristine blue waters of the Avalanche lake, and the emerald green expanse of forests, this place is an absolute reminder of God's wonderful ways. I could go on about Avalanche, but rather sadly, I haven't been able to visit after that particular trip.

What reminded me of Avalanche all of a sudden was a song that has been stuck in my head all day long:

This is the day, this is the day
That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice, we will rejoice
And be glad in it, and be glad in it!

The camp at Avalanche was run by the Scripture Union, and I remember the volunteer who guided us along our journey. Wilson  helped us with our kayaking expeditions around Avalanche Lake, and organized trekking trips across the mountains and forests. Best of all, after dusk, we would gather around a camp bonfire, and sing together, and this was one of the songs Wilson taught us, an unruly set of school kids, that day. Ever since then, when this song comes to my mind, I am immediately transported back to Avalanche, where the heady scent of the eucalyptus trees mingles in the refreshingly cold mountain air. At the same time, the tune and the words are so cheerful that it instantly puts a smile on my face, even if I am having an absolutely horrid day. Just goes on to show that every day is the Lord's day, and each day needs to be celebrated. This is the day! :)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kerala Summers

A pond near my granduncle's house in the heart of a typical Kerala village.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the holidays I spent as a child in Kerala. A sense of nostalgia, maybe? Or some kind of sadness that those are times that I have probably lost forever? I really don't know. Today, even if I do go back, times have changed, and so have people.  So, these are some of the things that came to my mind:

The rain. Monsoons in Kerala are amazingly beautiful. To just sit and watch the fierce rains swathe the lush greenery with a dash of pristine white is pure bliss. I have spent many a summer sitting at the verandah of my valiamma's house doing just that. Or simply reading a book and listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops.

Games and discussions with the cousins. This used to be super fun. No adults involved, just us kids. Whenever I visited Palakkad, after we finished gossiping about films, books, and people, our topic of conversation would always turn to the supernatural. The cousins always had something new for me, the so-called outsider. They told me tales of yakshis and rakshasas, handsome gandharvas and spirits that could be summoned through an Ouija board. I used to be petrified then, but looking back it does bring a smile. 

Temples, temples, and more temples. Shashi Tharoor, in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, also writes about his school holidays in Kerala. He describes it as a cross between a pilgrimage and a penance- his parents' pilgrimage, his penance. Well, my holidays were also a bit like that. :D 

Ever since I can remember, every trip had visits to at least seven or eight temples. First, the temple town of Guruvayoor. I used to hate the serpentine queues at the gate of the temple, often making our wait stretch into hours. According to the temple rules, women and girls sporting western clothing couldn't enter the temple, and I would always be dressed in a pattu pavadai. That in itself would annoy me, thanks to the indignity of clutching onto the long folds of the skirt lest I trip and fall on my face. And then there was always the possibility of my parents becoming over zealous in their devotion, leading them to suggest standing in the queue for another darshan which translated to more hours! I would be perpetually hungry, (I used to have a definite preference for 'bhojanam over bhajanam'. :D) and asking about meals was rather futile, since the purpose of the trip was to visit Bhagavan, not the Brahmins' pure vegetarian mess outside West Nada. (By the way, I've always been curious- what exactly do they mean by 'pure' vegetarian? I'm vegetarian myself, but I have no claims of being purer than the rest of humanity.)   After Guruvayoor, the next stop would be the nearby Shiva shrine of Mammiyoor. Then, on our way back to Palakkad, a stop at the adima kaavu or the family shrine. Ours is a matrilineal society, so it is customary to stop at Amma's family shrine, a temple dedicated to the goddess Bhagavati, nestled in the corner of a village, buried deep in the Western Ghats. I remember looking forward to the trip since the route to the village is so scenic- brown mountains in the distance, lush green fields, and the vast blue skies, this is God's own country at its best. Following trips to these compulsory temples, there were always visits made to nearby ones as well, especially for birthdays, special archanas, and prasadam which inevitably would be the absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious neipayasam. Dusk at these temples is beautiful, and watching the evening deeparadhana is splendid.

Naamajapam with my grandmother. As a child, I would be asked by amaama to go place a lamp at the entrance to the house when dusk set. This is considered auspicious, and I was taught to chant Deepam deepam while going about this act, since it essentially brings light to the household. (Is it a metaphorical reference to prosperity? Or is it just a tradition carried forward since there was no electricity in the olden days?) I don't see anyone doing it these days, even in Kerala. Once this was done, I would follow amaama to the puja room, and listen to her chant from the scriptures.

Road trips in Kerala. I especially remember long bus journeys from Coimbatore to Kochi where my uncle lives. Watching the ubiquitous toddy shops (where there are surprisingly well disciplined queues), banana chips stalls, Che Guevra posters announcing the next hartal, and roadside eateries with names like 'Emirates Hotel' whizz by is indeed an interesting experience. The potholes on the roads make the journey even more interesting. These are God's own roads, after all.

I'm unable to type any more. I want to go back, both in time and place. :(

P.S: I really did come across 'Emirates Hotel' last August. We stopped there for a chai break and I got to try some really good pathiri :D

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Identity Tags

How would you define yourself? This is a question that has been plaguing me for quite some time. Do you answer it with respect to where you come from, what language you speak, what faith you follow, your traditions and beliefs, or are these factors merely incidental? Throughout my growing years, I have been conscious of these factors etched onto some forgotten recess of the mind, but I soon realized that they don't really matter.

As a case in point, I have always been somewhat sceptical of the phrase 'Proud to be Indian'. (Yes, this phrase is usually put up as Facebook statuses every 15 August/26 January). Now don't get me wrong. I cherish my 'Indianness' and my Indian roots, but I am sure I would have felt the same way had I been born on the other side of the Radcliffe line! What I mean to say is that whilst it is good to cherish your nationality, religion, or even something like caste, these are just circumstances of birth. These identity tags should not really define one's identity, since they could well have been the other way round. But it's really sad that we still stick to defining a person through these terms.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this blog post and realized that I have been in the same situation as the author. Apart from the similarity in our names (or at least a part of my name), I also hail from Kerala, Palakkad to be precise. However, my parents were brought up in Tamil Nadu, and I myself spent a significant portion of my childhood in that state. So it isn't all that surprising that there are specks of Tamil thrown into my Malayalam. The fact that I am a vegetarian, together with my dad's Tamil sounding last name is enough to make anybody assume that I am a Tam-Brahm. My question is- does it really matter? What difference does it make? Should it even be a question of importance in the first place? I was amused at an incident that occurred a couple of months ago. I used to go buy lunch at one of the numerous Indian stalls on campus. The uncle working at the stall is quite chatty with students who frequent the area. So the first day, having seen him talk to others in both Hindi and Tamil, I chose to speak in the latter. (Both my Hindi and Tamil are rather laughable, but my Tamil is subject to less ridicule, so...) Then a couple of days later, the friendly uncle asked me whether I was from Chennai or Coimbatore. Well, I did have family in Coimbatore, and when we returned to India for the holidays we always went back there, so I replied Coimbatore, but originally from Palakkad. All this combined with my being vegetarian seemed to confirm that I was twice born, and so one day, out of curiosity, he asked me what my full name was. I was rather puzzled, but I did tell him. And then came the next question - Yen maa, nee Iyer aa, Iyengar aa? (Are you an Iyer or Iyengar?) Aah, so that was why he wanted to know my full name! Resisting the urge to reply with 'Manushya jaati' , I laughingly said, 'What is there in all this?' And he replied, 'Very important, ma. All this very important.'

I couldn't really blame him, since I have seen instances of this amongst my own family members. When I forgot to wear a pottu that confirmed my identity as a Hindu, someone remarked that I looked like a Christian. Or there was a time when someone asked me whether I was Christian because I happen to wear a rosary ring. There was another time when a school friend saw me reading a copy of Our Daily Bread and remarked in surprise, 'But, you aren't Christian!' I found it futile to explain that whilst I am a Hindu by practice, I do believe in Christ, the same way as I trust in Swami.

Does it really matter whether I follow Christ or Krishna? Does it really matter if my dad wears a sacred thread or not? Does it really matter whether I hail from the north or the south of the Vindhyas? Does it really matter whether I speak Malayalam, Tamil, or even Tulu? Indeed, does it really matter whether I am coloured, black, or white?

Who am I? That is a question that many have not found an answer to, and if the wise ones are to be believed, finding an answer to this elusive question is the purpose of life. I am still searching for the answer, but I do know that these tags do not define me. Yes, I cherish them, for they bring about a great deal of familiarity, and thereby solace, but then I do know that I am much more than all of them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This is the Day!

Around eight years ago, when I was at middle school, studying in Bahrain, my school had organized a summer camp in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. My parents were organizing the whole trip, so I was automatically included in the team. The week long trip included visits to wildlife centers in Bandipur, Top Slip, and Parambikulam Dam, all of which are well known among nature and wildlife aficionados in southern India. But the highlight of the trip for me was a visit to Avalanche lake, about which I have blogged earlier.

If you were to ask me to describe paradise, I would point out to Avalanche. Far from the glare of city lights, (in fact, not many people, even from Ooty and around, are aware of the existence of such a place) surrounded by the pristine blue waters of the Avalanche lake, and the emerald green expanse of forests, this place is an absolute reminder of God's wonderful ways. I could go on about Avalanche, but rather sadly, I haven't been able to visit after that particular trip.

What reminded me of Avalanche all of a sudden was a song that has been stuck in my head all day long:

This is the day, this is the day
That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice, we will rejoice
And be glad in it, and be glad in it!

The camp at Avalanche was run by the Scripture Union, and I remember the volunteer who guided us along our journey. Wilson  helped us with our kayaking expeditions around Avalanche Lake, and organized trekking trips across the mountains and forests. Best of all, after dusk, we would gather around a camp bonfire, and sing together, and this was one of the songs Wilson taught us, an unruly set of school kids, that day. Ever since then, when this song comes to my mind, I am immediately transported back to Avalanche, where the heady scent of the eucalyptus trees mingles in the refreshingly cold mountain air. At the same time, the tune and the words are so cheerful that it instantly puts a smile on my face, even if I am having an absolutely horrid day. Just goes on to show that every day is the Lord's day, and each day needs to be celebrated. This is the day! :)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kerala Summers

A pond near my granduncle's house in the heart of a typical Kerala village.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the holidays I spent as a child in Kerala. A sense of nostalgia, maybe? Or some kind of sadness that those are times that I have probably lost forever? I really don't know. Today, even if I do go back, times have changed, and so have people.  So, these are some of the things that came to my mind:

The rain. Monsoons in Kerala are amazingly beautiful. To just sit and watch the fierce rains swathe the lush greenery with a dash of pristine white is pure bliss. I have spent many a summer sitting at the verandah of my valiamma's house doing just that. Or simply reading a book and listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops.

Games and discussions with the cousins. This used to be super fun. No adults involved, just us kids. Whenever I visited Palakkad, after we finished gossiping about films, books, and people, our topic of conversation would always turn to the supernatural. The cousins always had something new for me, the so-called outsider. They told me tales of yakshis and rakshasas, handsome gandharvas and spirits that could be summoned through an Ouija board. I used to be petrified then, but looking back it does bring a smile. 

Temples, temples, and more temples. Shashi Tharoor, in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, also writes about his school holidays in Kerala. He describes it as a cross between a pilgrimage and a penance- his parents' pilgrimage, his penance. Well, my holidays were also a bit like that. :D 

Ever since I can remember, every trip had visits to at least seven or eight temples. First, the temple town of Guruvayoor. I used to hate the serpentine queues at the gate of the temple, often making our wait stretch into hours. According to the temple rules, women and girls sporting western clothing couldn't enter the temple, and I would always be dressed in a pattu pavadai. That in itself would annoy me, thanks to the indignity of clutching onto the long folds of the skirt lest I trip and fall on my face. And then there was always the possibility of my parents becoming over zealous in their devotion, leading them to suggest standing in the queue for another darshan which translated to more hours! I would be perpetually hungry, (I used to have a definite preference for 'bhojanam over bhajanam'. :D) and asking about meals was rather futile, since the purpose of the trip was to visit Bhagavan, not the Brahmins' pure vegetarian mess outside West Nada. (By the way, I've always been curious- what exactly do they mean by 'pure' vegetarian? I'm vegetarian myself, but I have no claims of being purer than the rest of humanity.)   After Guruvayoor, the next stop would be the nearby Shiva shrine of Mammiyoor. Then, on our way back to Palakkad, a stop at the adima kaavu or the family shrine. Ours is a matrilineal society, so it is customary to stop at Amma's family shrine, a temple dedicated to the goddess Bhagavati, nestled in the corner of a village, buried deep in the Western Ghats. I remember looking forward to the trip since the route to the village is so scenic- brown mountains in the distance, lush green fields, and the vast blue skies, this is God's own country at its best. Following trips to these compulsory temples, there were always visits made to nearby ones as well, especially for birthdays, special archanas, and prasadam which inevitably would be the absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious neipayasam. Dusk at these temples is beautiful, and watching the evening deeparadhana is splendid.

Naamajapam with my grandmother. As a child, I would be asked by amaama to go place a lamp at the entrance to the house when dusk set. This is considered auspicious, and I was taught to chant Deepam deepam while going about this act, since it essentially brings light to the household. (Is it a metaphorical reference to prosperity? Or is it just a tradition carried forward since there was no electricity in the olden days?) I don't see anyone doing it these days, even in Kerala. Once this was done, I would follow amaama to the puja room, and listen to her chant from the scriptures.

Road trips in Kerala. I especially remember long bus journeys from Coimbatore to Kochi where my uncle lives. Watching the ubiquitous toddy shops (where there are surprisingly well disciplined queues), banana chips stalls, Che Guevra posters announcing the next hartal, and roadside eateries with names like 'Emirates Hotel' whizz by is indeed an interesting experience. The potholes on the roads make the journey even more interesting. These are God's own roads, after all.

I'm unable to type any more. I want to go back, both in time and place. :(

P.S: I really did come across 'Emirates Hotel' last August. We stopped there for a chai break and I got to try some really good pathiri :D

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Identity Tags

How would you define yourself? This is a question that has been plaguing me for quite some time. Do you answer it with respect to where you come from, what language you speak, what faith you follow, your traditions and beliefs, or are these factors merely incidental? Throughout my growing years, I have been conscious of these factors etched onto some forgotten recess of the mind, but I soon realized that they don't really matter.

As a case in point, I have always been somewhat sceptical of the phrase 'Proud to be Indian'. (Yes, this phrase is usually put up as Facebook statuses every 15 August/26 January). Now don't get me wrong. I cherish my 'Indianness' and my Indian roots, but I am sure I would have felt the same way had I been born on the other side of the Radcliffe line! What I mean to say is that whilst it is good to cherish your nationality, religion, or even something like caste, these are just circumstances of birth. These identity tags should not really define one's identity, since they could well have been the other way round. But it's really sad that we still stick to defining a person through these terms.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this blog post and realized that I have been in the same situation as the author. Apart from the similarity in our names (or at least a part of my name), I also hail from Kerala, Palakkad to be precise. However, my parents were brought up in Tamil Nadu, and I myself spent a significant portion of my childhood in that state. So it isn't all that surprising that there are specks of Tamil thrown into my Malayalam. The fact that I am a vegetarian, together with my dad's Tamil sounding last name is enough to make anybody assume that I am a Tam-Brahm. My question is- does it really matter? What difference does it make? Should it even be a question of importance in the first place? I was amused at an incident that occurred a couple of months ago. I used to go buy lunch at one of the numerous Indian stalls on campus. The uncle working at the stall is quite chatty with students who frequent the area. So the first day, having seen him talk to others in both Hindi and Tamil, I chose to speak in the latter. (Both my Hindi and Tamil are rather laughable, but my Tamil is subject to less ridicule, so...) Then a couple of days later, the friendly uncle asked me whether I was from Chennai or Coimbatore. Well, I did have family in Coimbatore, and when we returned to India for the holidays we always went back there, so I replied Coimbatore, but originally from Palakkad. All this combined with my being vegetarian seemed to confirm that I was twice born, and so one day, out of curiosity, he asked me what my full name was. I was rather puzzled, but I did tell him. And then came the next question - Yen maa, nee Iyer aa, Iyengar aa? (Are you an Iyer or Iyengar?) Aah, so that was why he wanted to know my full name! Resisting the urge to reply with 'Manushya jaati' , I laughingly said, 'What is there in all this?' And he replied, 'Very important, ma. All this very important.'

I couldn't really blame him, since I have seen instances of this amongst my own family members. When I forgot to wear a pottu that confirmed my identity as a Hindu, someone remarked that I looked like a Christian. Or there was a time when someone asked me whether I was Christian because I happen to wear a rosary ring. There was another time when a school friend saw me reading a copy of Our Daily Bread and remarked in surprise, 'But, you aren't Christian!' I found it futile to explain that whilst I am a Hindu by practice, I do believe in Christ, the same way as I trust in Swami.

Does it really matter whether I follow Christ or Krishna? Does it really matter if my dad wears a sacred thread or not? Does it really matter whether I hail from the north or the south of the Vindhyas? Does it really matter whether I speak Malayalam, Tamil, or even Tulu? Indeed, does it really matter whether I am coloured, black, or white?

Who am I? That is a question that many have not found an answer to, and if the wise ones are to be believed, finding an answer to this elusive question is the purpose of life. I am still searching for the answer, but I do know that these tags do not define me. Yes, I cherish them, for they bring about a great deal of familiarity, and thereby solace, but then I do know that I am much more than all of them.