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That smile, that warmth, that beauty: Remembering my Amamma

Amma + Amma = Amamma

It’s a month today since her passing. I know she’s gone, but I still haven’t fully registered her absence. It struck me this past weekend, as mum and me sorted out her sarees, and her scent wafted around the room, that it isn’t possible to really comprehend the death of a loved one. We try, we pretend to be all pragmatic and grown up about it. We talk, we share memories, we laugh. And then, one day, in an unexpected moment, we find our cheeks wet and our hearts heavy. We find we cannot breathe very well for a few moments. Then things appear in focus again. And life goes on.

At least that’s how it has been with me this past month. The thing is, Amamma and me have always been very close. She was a second mother to me through my early childhood when I spent two years with my grandparents in Delhi while my parents were abroad. I followed her around like a puppy dog in my growing years when they lived in Bangalore, loving the scents and flavours of her divine cooking, inhaling the aromas of freshly ground coffee and the freshly picked jasmines from her garden. She had a beautiful voice and my best memories are of Amamma singing her morning prayers even as she went about doing her chores. A busybee if there was one! She taught me how to do a mean kollam and everyday of the summer vacations that I spent with them, she encouraged me and guided me in making better designs.

She was the one who pampered me during my 10th and 12th grade Board Exams, rustling of my favourite eats and handing me coffee in a flask before turning in at night, knowing I could be up studying. Even in college, when she lived alone in Chennai, I remember visiting her from college in Delhi to spend time with her. She was a good sport, accompanying me to Kancheepuram to study traditional homes for my B.Arch dissertation way back in ’98. In recent years, she has been in Gurgaon living in the adjacent building with my mum. Though the roles were reversed and it was me checking in on her every now and then, we shared an easy bond with much laughing and cuddling involved.

My relationship with Amamma was different in a very marked way from nearly all other relationships in my life. We never shared an intellectual relationship, even in part. Instead, our bond had a deep aesthetic and emotional foundation. I have known for a long time, and this has only been reinforced by the sort of memories that have surfaced recently, that I derived my love for the beautiful things in life largely from her. She shaped my aesthetic tastes in a very profound manner. In my deep comfort with music, in my enjoyment of religious rituals despite my agnostic position on religious belief, and most markedly in how I choose to dress. Her grace and beauty, inside and out, left an impression on me right from my early years. My love for dressing up, for beautiful clothes and traditional jewellery is entirely a result of her grooming and her generosity.

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The trademark grin!

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Speechless at her beauty

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Contemplative

I see now how I’ve styled myself after her time and again, and this was brought home to me during the #100sareepact I was part of in 2015. Being the only grandchild with so much access to her, I’ve benefited from numerous handouts from her cupboard through my life-bits and pieces of jewellery, scarves, perfumes, and of course, sarees…..Each piece came with a story, a nugget of wisdom, a bit of gossip from her past. Through the years, I have constructed a veritable tapestry of her life experiences, from her childhood to her life as a wife and mother. Even those stories, unraveling from her sarees and jewelry, have been an invaluable education.

When I woke up this morning, I wanted to make today special. I wanted to clear the haze of grief and celebrate the zest and spirit that she had always had for life. I wore her saree, one of those many that have made the journey from her cupboard to mine over the years. I felt her warmth, I smiled her smile, I felt beautiful.

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101 and still counting: Ajjee, you are never far away from me

What is one year in a life lived over a hundred years? Only 365 days or so, one may so. In contrast, a year after the loss of someone so great who lived a century but felt immortal, who looked diminutive but towered over us all with the force of her persona- this year has felt like an eternity.

Ajjee left us a year ago. But she isn’t really gone. She was there when I was born, she was there when I struggled through nights of studying and stress, she was with me when I fought to comprehend the grief of losing my father even as she dealt with her own immeasurable loss. And she is there now.

It isn’t her physical presence, but her immense stoicism that I carry around with me like a lamp with a steady flame. It isn’t her material memory but her vast empathy and broad-mindedness that I try to nurture everyday, and use as a shield against the injustices and pettiness around me. I don’t hear her words when I shut my eyes and think about her, but I feel those bony fingers down my spine telling me that all will be well, that I must have faith and the doors will open.

Our ancestors are all within us, giving us the strength we need to go on, to scale those new heights, to conquer what we set our sights on. And of all of them, Ajjee’s smiling presence is the most comforting of all.

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An era ends, where do we begin now? A note to Ajjee, who is no more.

She nearly made it to the century mark. It was approaching next year and the family was so excited to celebrate with her. She tolerated our childishness with her characteristic stoicism, but equally typical was her ultimate response to get drawn into it. To plan with us and revel in the expectations of good times to come. Her birdlike alert eyes, her naughty smile, her penchant for wit and gossip and her eternal rock-like support will be missed forever more.

Ajjee

My ajjee. Our ajjee

Ajjee or Ayee to not just us in the family, but to many many more.

She left us this morning and it still does not sink in. It is, for me, the passing of an era, of a generation whose values and discipline, whose rigour and steadfastness, whose strength and vast experience we shall never match. I will always regret my inability to document more closely her life, her experiences and her world view. But I must not complain. Or indulge in regret, which I’ve always held to be a rather wasteful emotion.

Ajjee gave to us with no holds barred. She there whenever we needed her. To cook for us, sit awake through the nights when we needed to study or when a fever racked our body. But not just that. She also sat and talked to us, cracked jokes, heard our inane stories about friends, our fantasies. She ignored my usual prank of hiding the story book between the pages of a school text and pretending to study. She never told on us grandchildren to our parents. And it takes a lot to do that!

Today, when I am a parent and when I observe my kids interacting with their grandparents, I understand a lot more about how she added value.

Ajjee, no one can ever take your place, but you have left behind a legacy of care and compassion, of confidence and self-respect, or hard work and perseverance, that we carry with us everyday and hopefully will pass on to the next generation as well.

Rest in peace…..

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Bliss is rafting down the Jia Bhoroli on a sunny afternoon

It caught my fancy. Jia Bhoroli, what a lovely name for this lively river that we had the wonderful opportunity to enjoy that last week of 2014 on our visit to Assam. Known as the Kameng in the Indo-Tibetan glacial regions and flowing through Arunachal Pradesh, the river gets this typically musical Assamese name as soon as it enters this state.

We rafted down a picturesque stretch alongside the Nameri Tiger Reserve, with the Himalayas behind us, navigating one gentle rapid after another, enjoying a delightful picnic on the raft. Three rafts, five families, many excited and boisterous children. It was a blissful picnic ending in a meal at the Eco Camp, which sports tent accommodation and local produce & handicrafts.

I must ask my Assamese friends what Jia Bhoroli means. If I can take a guess, I would say I agree…something about these waters, their lyrical rhythm, their sweet taste, their meandering gait filled my heart with satisfaction. A unique pleasure that only being with nature can give.

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Rafts being set up for us…

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The ugly side effects of irresponsible tourism. The State should fine the operator, methinks!

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Excitement as we watch the chips and cold drinks being loaded and take in the fresh, clean air!

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We begin to see the first of many winged friends….most of them visitors for the season, some native to Nameri…

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We flow with the currents, gentle at this time of the year, and watch the mountains recede further and further

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Dramatic pieces of driftwood, trees long dead, emerge every now and then, giving a desert-like quality to one of the lushest landscapes in India!

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Over the rapid, the currents would seize us and whirl us around for a bit. The kids would shriek in joy and it would be over far too soon…

More winged friends, taking in the lovely warm sun

More winged friends, taking in the lovely warm sun

Or in flight with a hawk eye on the water, waiting to dive for the fish...

Or in flight with a hawk eye on the water, waiting to dive for the fish…

Or just enjoying the joy of flight...

Or just enjoying the joy of flight…

Looking back again, not really wanting this journey to end...willing the mind's eye to capture what it was seeing for posterity

Looking back again, not really wanting this journey to end…willing the mind’s eye to capture what it was seeing for posterity

Adrenalin rush @ the magical world of Efteling

I once had an ambition to write children’s short stories and someone on my twitter TL had suggested that whatever I write must have dragons, because they held an unfailing enormous charm for children. At the time, I wondered. But I thought of his advice the day we visited Efteling, the 60-year old veteran of amusement parks located in the southern part of The Netherlands.

I’d been there before and knew what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for the high levels of excitement and energy from the children that day. It took us over two hours to get there from Haarlem on a warm day, but no one minded. And how could we, when we were greeted by the most fantastic dragon ever, one who looked oh-so fierce and belched flames too!

_DSC6493_DSC6497Efteling’s architecture recreated the magical world of castles and dungeons, ogres and knights, elves and goblins and my children were absolutely charmed. Udai, especially, could imagine himself inside one of his books (Harry Potter, Eragon, Lord of the Rings…you get the drift) and his happiness knew no bounds.

_DSC6486_DSC6498For Aadyaa, the focus of excitement were the roller coasters, the crazier the better! And we were really glad she was tall enough to do them, In fact, Rahul had asked her to pull herself up to her full height if someone came with a measuring stick. And she did! A full 120 cms little Aadyaa was on the day we went to Efteling, aided a bit by her sports shoes and her gymnastics training! We did three roller coaster rides back-to-back, waiting for about 30 minutes for each one (not tiring, just builds up the excitement!). They were bizarre, topsy turvy and scary, in that order. We all loved them and the rush of adrenaline stayed with us for a long long time!

_DSC6491_DSC6500Fotor0707123652Fotor0707124228IMG_7212To wind down, we took a serene boat ride, saying hello to all the ducklings and geese we met. And the final elevator ride high into the sky that offers a bird’s eye view of Efteling and beyond. It is then that we realized that the park is located deep inside a protected forest area and all we could see was the dense green cover all around. All the easier for them to create the magical feeling that makes Efteling so special!_DSC6520

Ajjee, family rockstar: Nearly 100 and indomitable still!

We’ve never seen her sit still. We grew up eating home made sheviyo (fine noodles cooked in multiple ways) and paapad (typical to Indian food, hard to explain but is spicy, made of pulses and eaten as an accompaniment with meals) made by her. We helped her make vaatiyo (baatis or wicker sticks for lamps) from raw cotton. And we swaddled babies and ourselves in godadiyo (quilts) hand stitched by her. Ajjee, my father’s mother, my beautiful grandmother, has been a constant in the lives of all her children and grandchildren and many many more of us.

Made usually of leftover pieces of cloth, Ajjee builds intricate patterns and designs, often a peacock or a cat for kids or a pattern of geometric flowers for older people or even a simple quilt made out of an old sari put together by a complex and even running stitch. Her talent and industry has been the stuff of legends. It wasn’t just family, she would make these precious quilts for anyone who came in to appreciate, ask for help and even those who made a simple, honest request (it’s getting tough for her now to be equally productive, but not for want of trying!).

This morning, the family proudly read her name mentioned in an interview in The Hindu with Patrick J Finn, who has just finished a book on quilt-making in India and I simply had to write this tribute to the most inspirational person in our family. Our very own rockstar- Hirabai Naik! Ajjee for some, Maee Ajjee for others, Ayee for many, a symbol of grit and determination, a beacon of kindness and love and hope. A person who rises above us despite all her human failings.

_DSC1797Always built small, Ajjee has become frailer with time but her spirit is indomitable. Today, even as she complains of feeling fatigue, her mind is still working on the latest designs. Beyond quilting, she is a master of re-use, making hundred of cloth shopping bags and gifting them to everyone. She doesn’t actively advocate their use, simply because she belongs to the generation that never made the switch to the plastic shopping bag! She just assumes everyone still carries their own cloth bags with them and I think it is remarkable that within her lifetime we have moved so far away from cloth bags and are now firmly marching back towards them, aided by supermarkets that charge us extra for carry bags in a bid to encourage some environmental sensitivity.

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

In small but fantastic examples like this, I increasingly see reasons for Indians to look back at the small things we are losing- skills, recipes, habits and ideas that make for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle that puts community and family first, but is also is eager to learn from others. To me, that (not religion, not ritual, not caste or creed, nor regional identity) is the essence of an Indian culture and I always look at Ajjee with amazement for all these values she taught me, without ever preaching but entirely by example!

Dinner at a windmill: How Dutch can we get?

One of the highlights on this time’s Netherlands trip, for all of us, was the lovely dinner Anne and Marijn had planned for us at De Molen, a traditional windmill converted into a restaurant. There are several of these in The Netherlands and it was a great introduction to the Dutch countryside as we drove from Amsterdam through lush green fields, pretty canals and past picture-perfect provincial homes and farmsteads to the this fantastic old windmill, all restored and poised, waiting for us.

IMG_7074It was a lovely summer evening. We had only been in The Netherlands a couple of days and were easing into the peculiar feel of the European summer. Long leisurely evenings full of light, gossip, laughter, relaxation. Time to explore, or just be! The windmill was the perfect place to do all of that.

Built in 1766, windmills like this are scattered all over the countryside, many of them rebuilt from scratch to their original glory. While they performed the all-important job of using the wind’s energy to grind cereal in the pastoral 18th century, today these structures have become a touristic symbol of Dutch culture, along with tulips and clogs galore! The Dutch love to conserve the past and it’s delightful to drive by numerous windmills even as you see the countryside dotted with modern windmills as well! I loved the way this structure has been creatively re-used, maintaining its essence and character. A family run restaurant meant it had a distinct charm and standard of service that made the experience especially pleasant.

So through this perfect summer evening, we (the lazy grown-ups) chilled and chatted with the windmill behind us,  while the children explored the nearby canal and a little ‘island’ they found there. At some point, Marijn got them into skimming stones over the water and that kept them busy for a long long time.

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They gave Aadyaa a windmill pic to colour and she diligently did that for a bit!

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Conversation galore

Exploring the surrounds with Anne mausi

Exploring the surrounds with Anne mausi

Getting along famousl with Marijn, who is seriously talented when it comes to children

Getting along famously with Marijn, who is seriously talented when it comes to children

Chilling!

Chilling!

The menu at De Molen was a small selection, not designed to confuse certainly. And we could all choose something quite different. Rahul ate a pork Schnitzel (we would mostly give that a pass in Germany, but it was very good this evening), Udai had a dish of pork tenderloin that he pronounced was excellent, I had a very typical Dutch dish that comprised a super thin well-cooked fish fillet. Marijn also had the schitzel while Anne ate something that looked particularly healthy! The desserts were fantastic. Apple strudel and a sinful chocolate concoction sealed the deal for us. We returned home to Haarlem one set of very happy holidayers!

A touristy pic in front of the grand old windmill

A touristy pic in front of the grand old windmill

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Udai’s Tenth: The best birthday ever!

We chose The Netherlands as our summer destination primarily to visit family. It had been a while since I saw my uncle, aunt and cousins who live there. Plus Rahul and the kids had never been to what Rahul teasingly refers to as uncle-land! As soon as we landed, we were enveloped in the warmth of family, but the highlight and the most amazing demonstration of family love was the way Udai’s tenth birthday was celebrated; in his own words, “the best birthday ever!” The large share of the credit, of course, goes to Liduine who the kids call Oma, Dutch for Grandma. But everyone chipped in. Follow the fantastic day in this photo essay of the “best birthday ever”!

Udai woke up to a decorated home. Oma had taken care to do this the previous night. I think we tend to forget he is a kid….he was so excited!

A little joy jig!

Oma is the best!

Post breakfast, we took a trip down to the market nearby to choose our own gifts as well as cake! Udai took ages to finally choose two Lego Technic boxes and a delicious apple cake

Doesn’t this pic say it all?

Next in line was a visit to the cousins, the ‘little people’! Olivier (5) and Berend (3) are delightful kids and Aadyaa had been asking to meet them for years. Her dream came true…

The kids spent an hour or two jumping and playing sand in the backyard plus general shouting, running and laughing around. Much pandemonium! And cake cutting too...Thomas (my cousin) and Coleta (his wife) have a beautiful house on a canal. Typically Dutch, with lots of place for the kids to play

The kids spent an hour or two jumping and playing sand in the backyard plus general shouting, running and laughing around. Much pandemonium! And cake cutting too…Thomas (my cousin) and Coleta (his wife) have a beautiful house on a canal. Typically Dutch, with lots of place for the kids to play

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Udai and Rahul are full of cake by this time!

Next destination: Zandvoort! It’s not very far from Haarlem, this beautiful Dutch beach. It’s a fixture on most of our visits to the Dutch family, but the 11th of June was a beautiful, windy but warm day to be at the beachside…

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The van you see in the background is driven by a tractor and sells delicious seafood preparations. We ate calamari (a favourite with the kids since the 2011 Barcelone trip!), a mixed seafood platter and the quintessential summer Dutch delicacy- new herring which is eaten raw or smoked and served with chopped onion!

Shells galore…

…and running away from the numerous jellyfish in the waters (here, some kids have made an artwork of the helpless jellyfish!) were the beach highlights!

Some horsing around too!

Oma had been chilling out at a beach restaurant nearby, sipping a cool drink, while we were at the beach. We joined her for a drink and then realised…

..that the rest of the family was driving down to Zandvoort as well! We were going to have a beachside birthday party!

A party in which you got gifts (check out his new watch!), ate some delicious food and…

…ran back to sea for a quick dip in the cold waters

Raising a toast for Udai here before heading back. It’s late and the deceptive European summer light invites us to linger, but the children are tired and we must go now…

Oma has another trick up her sleeve, however! A quick pit stop for Italian ice cream on our way home. She clicked this picture and sent it to us. It sort of says it all, doesn’t it?

Sights, sounds, stories: In & around our stately old Kanpur home

Family weddings are to enjoy and the incredibly complex nature of Indian families makes them even more entertaining, if you are intent on taking each experience in the spirit of tolerance that is! Every wedding is remembered for various incidents, squabbles and comic antics alike and this one was no exception. But I’m not inclined to air my family’s dirty or not-so-dirty linen in public so I’ll refrain from sharing the juicy details!

As the bahu (daughter-in-law) of the family, I’ve received unconditional love from all of Rahul’s relatives and as a bit of an outsider (no longer now though!), I’ve also enjoyed exploring a new culture and context. Rahul’s maternal side are Rajputs, belonging originally to Bihar but having settled in the Lucknow-Kanpur area for a few generations now. This time, as in the past, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the rambling ancient home in which the family lives right in the heart of Kanpur. The house, now over a century old, is located inside a sprawling complex that houses the Bishambhar Nath Sanatan Dharam (BNSD) College that was once surrounded by orchards and is now dotted with homes of the upper caste families that were originally associated with the Trust that owns the land. One enters this little development through Chunniganj, an old mohalla of the city with a dominant Muslim population. The contrast between one side of the home is fascinating. One side green, not so densely populated, occupied mostly by Brahmin families, sounds of cows, kids playing, pooja bells, family squabbles, parrots; and the other, dense, haphazard, Muslim, sounds of the azaan from two dofferent mosques punsture the air at regular intervals through the day, dawn to dusk! It is quite an experience!

Our home is an imposing structure, stately and colonial in bearing, but now a bit run over with the changes that have been made to it over time. The additions are a bit haphazard and make for an interesting study and many of the original adornment remain, looking askance but somehow hanging in there! Adding substantially to the character are the paraphernalia over generations that are lying around. A discarded table top here, old books there, an out-of-use VCR in a bag in tucked in a corner, construction debris of varying dates and so on. And of course the stories that accompany the objects, the buildings and the people around us….the stories that bring everything to life!

Entry from the gali! Check out how the sagging vault is propped up by a pillar! Jugaad!

Entry from the gali! Check out how the sagging vault is propped up by a pillar! Jugaad!

Facade

Facade

One of the porches that isn't built over

One of the smaller porches

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Incongrous details: Mooch waala lion, fortress like parapets and the shaadi ka tent!

Incongrous details: Mooch waala lion, fortress like parapets and the shaadi ka tent!

Early morning gup-shup! Multiple terraces being enjoyed

Early morning gup-shup! Multiple terraces being enjoyed

Another terrace being enjoyed and the old discarded table top!

Another terrace being enjoyed and the old discarded table top!

Stuff lying around on the terrace...old houses are fascinating collections of junk. Rahul even found books that he owned as a child somewhere!

Stuff lying around on the terrace…old houses are fascinating collections of junk. Rahul even found books that he owned as a child somewhere!

From a recent spurt of additions to the house

From a recent spurt of additions to the house

Chunni ganj before us and Rahul's memories of the Shami Safi villa that added a room or a floor each time he visited in his childhood!

Chunni ganj before us and Rahul’s memories of the Shami Safi villa that added a room or a floor each time he visited in his childhood!

Focal Point

Focal Point

What I come back home ‘to’ and ‘for’… clicked on Diwali when they were in a real funny mood…more clicks later!

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