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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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‘A City Fit for Royals’ by Shweta Sinha #TheCityasMuse Special Mention

As an IT professional, Shweta Sinha has been to several places around the world. When what is seen is not enough, she loves conjuring up worlds through her writing. Her stories and articles have been published on Kinooze.com, a children’s news website, and in Woman’s Era. There’s more from her at http://shwetasheel.wordpress.com. An avid reader, Shweta believes books complete her world that she otherwise shares with her husband, two boys, parents and an aquarium full of colourful fishes.

Comment: Shweta’s intensely personal and emotional piece on Kathmandu delves deep into nostalgia, but leaves a mark by making a poignant statement about the ethos of her city.

A CITY FIT FOR ROYALS

Houses crumbling to dust, the air resounding with haunting cries, historic monuments turning to history – these images rocked the world only months ago. While they shook every heart, mine bled with an unfamiliar angst. For the city of Kathmandu had always been my paradise.

The snow-capped Himalayas, casting their protective shadows over the valley, added a mystical allure to the exquisitely carved wooden houses. Smiling faces ambled the narrow, winding paths, nattering in a language that made them sing. My earliest memories from the 70’s consist of scuttling up a creaking wooden staircase into the attic kitchen, drawn by an aroma of sautéed jeera dunk into freshly boiled pulses. Of huddling together at bedtime, listening to my grandfather describe his treks across the mountains to the valley. Tall tales littered with sky-high bears and walls running through the wilderness that slithered and morphed into hissing snakes. His month-long hike sounded much more thrilling than our journey on rickety buses scraping the curvaceous mountain roads.

Kathmandu was once a shoppers’ delight for all things foreign. Summer after summer I waited with unbridled eagerness to spot the latest Hot wheels model or buy a blonde-haired doll. Sometimes Nani would tag me along to the teeming bylanes of the old-town market. She would pause at shops displaying hordes of ‘potey’ in red, blue, green and a myriad other colours. Miniscule beads, strung together into brilliantly crafted necklaces. Nani would haggle in Nepali while I pretended to follow every word. At the end, the shopkeeper, often dressed in a red saree over a white and red cholo, conceded to sell at Nani’s quoted price. As she stuffed the selected necklaces into paper packets, the lady would flash me a grin and ask my Nani if I were her ‘chhori‘. Shy at the sudden attention, I would wrap my tiny self in the loose end of my grandmother’s saree.

The city gave me my first fizz of Coca Cola, a drink banned in India then. Eons before they became ingrained in the Delhi street food culture, spicy momos gained popularity in the Kathmandu eateries. The flavour of the tangy-sweet-spicy titaura, a local version of candy made from fruit, still tingles my taste buds. If you’ve ever tasted one, I’m sure you’re already drooling. If you’ve not, you’re missing something.

My grandparents’ house provided an unhindered view of the royal palace grounds. Often I would find myself in the balcony, gazing at the ten-foot high brick wall surrounding a thicket of trees that hid the Narayan Hiti Durbar from prying eyes, even as I dreamt of the life the imperial family led inside. But never did I envision the gory circumstances that tainted the dazzling white walls a dirty red.

Jokes about Nepali watchmen abound, shared with an iota of smug merriment. To me, however, Nepal remains the country of the Sherpa who stepped aside to let Hillary claim his name to fame. A country whose spirit no calamity dare suppress. Kathmandu – the city with the wooden house – will resurrect itself with unforgettable smiles.

Ashmi Ahuwalia’s city through the lens of nostalgia #TheCityasMuse Special Mention

Ashmi likes to think of herself as a  poet and enjoys indulging in the world of rhyme when not doing business development in her day job.  She has studied English Literature and  Media & Communications, and is passionate about her cocker spaniel, dessert, writing and soft rock. She is the editor of Writing Love (Rupa, 2010) a compilation of Indian-English love poetry.
Comment: Ashmi’s piece takes a nostalgic spin on the city, picking images and flavours, and blending emotions and observations as she narrates the “map of memories’ she carries in “the pocket of (her) heart”. The effortless flow of the piece was much appreciated and also the defined moments in time that she has managed to etch in, giving the reader some points of reference and an insight into her world.
Ashmi’s #TheCityasMuse entry

It’s amazing what a city can come to mean in nostalgia. Somewhere between a microscope and a dream, you really see it, the way you never had when you were there.

In my little studio flat at Putney, I remembered the chaat with the imli chutney. It had such a particular flavor only found in that one red-brick corner, behind the car park. The guardian of that corner was always in faded white, a chai in his hand. He was frying potatoes, feeding gol-gappas and chatting with his ardent line of customers all at the same time. He had a secret ingredient— and on a cold icy November evening—I tried recreating that delicious feeling in my kitchen. Time became that taste, and all I could think of. I made it with papdi I bought from Southall, and chutney I found in the local Indian shop. But my favourite city had patented that flurry of emotions, and nothing else was a patch.

Sometimes I was reminded of the midnight lane. And dancing to my heart’s delight on a small terrace with a man I was beginning to fall in love with. Everyone young in the city was thronging these little mazes of twilight, where love sometimes teased, sometimes lusted, sometimes fell into endless pits and sometimes ended. Between alcohol and the latest pop songs, hearts would beat faster; and young adults would slowly become adults. But we grew up more every weekend, learning the ways of the world. I like to think of it as the ambiguous tar passage that led to heaven, or hell. Or more appropriately, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s gray world, to ‘Hell-Heaven’.

Staring outside my window at the little boys playing ball often took me back to our Gandhi park—nondescript but warm with everything childhood. This place was memory-foamed; it was where the boundaries of friendship had moved from blurry to solid, like the chalk lines we drew out for Stapu every evening as kids. Our togetherness was that little eight-numbered, symmetrical game. Even today, going back quietly affirms that we have each other’s backs— the way we did in our chuppan-chuppai then, the way we do now.

And lately, what I miss the most is that newly constructed Superbahn in my city—where as a 25-year old having returned home from the holidays I would sort out my emotions. The quiet Expressway, quieter than the night where I drove like the wind and became self-aware—alone with my thoughts. Where I learnt what it means to fight my own battles in the marathon race of life, based mostly on gut and rarely on logic.

Wherever I am in the world, nothing compares of these spaces etched in my mind. These fragments are home; they are the narrow passages of space and time that have distilled quietly into my skin. I am a collage of these cityscapes, a map of memories I carry in the pocket of my heart, refusing to let go.

‘Karol Bagh’ by Vitasta Raina #TheCityasMuseRunners Up

Vitasta Raina is an architect and a writer. She has published a fictional novel, Writer’s Block, and a book of poems, Someday Dreams. She blogs at http://theurbanexploratory.blogspot.in/

Comment: Vitasta sent in 5 entries, all exhibiting her deep interest in the city as well as her talent with words. However, the judges were impressed by the particular emotional connect of this poem, which laments the decay of her family’s ancestral home. Along with her entry, she wrote a note that outlines the context: “My maternal grandparents migrated to Karol Bagh, New Delhi, in 1947 during the Partition of India. After my grandfather’s death, my uncle’s family moved out of the Kothi to a high-rise gated prison in Gurgaon. Upon my return to Delhi in 2013, I was miserable to see my childhood home abandoned, and the neglected squallor of our once lively mohalla. These poems are perhaps eulogies as I mourn.”

Karol Bagh

Beautiful decay, I could eat you,

split your pale brown gills,

on an autumn afternoon,

and consume your cultural layers.

You with salty crust of ageless expression,

you with the wood grains, patterns of the sea,

of micro-beads and snowflakes,

fractals of societies’ self-relieved agony,

inchoate clusters of myth-ridden mohallas,

fungal communes of local habits;

I could collect your inexistent senses,

and break down your unchanged names.

Beautiful decay, on pavements,

in small-worlds, in rotting walls of colonies

alive past their expiration date,

souvenirs of once-life, tombs for now-death.

 All Rights Reserved. ( C.). Vitasta Raina

Remembering ‘billi’ and ‘rasta’ in the unending chaos of NDLS

I deboarded the Shatabdi late last night at New Delhi Railway Station, aka NDLS. Waiting for Rahul to pick me up, I walked out onto the main road staring at the glitzy multi-level parking opposite the station entry and the long line of cars streaming in, winding their way out, looking for parking, honking, waiting in strange place. And I thought of all the zillion times I have dashed into this station, usually on the Ajmeri gate side where trains to and from Lucknow tend to loiter. I have missed trains and boarded moving trains and also waited for hours on these platforms. I have come here by auto and car and recently by Metro as well. NDLS has been incarnated and reincarnated, but the chaos caused by simply too many people always remains. I was smiling, standing there by myself.IMG_6231IMG_6233And then I remembered the most hilarious incident I associate with NDLS. Rahul and me were here to drop someone off, I do not remember whom. Just as we turned left into the station entry (at the same point were I stood, but back then it was dingy and potholed, narrower too), the car before us braked suddenly and came to a complete halt. There was no car in front of them, but they wouldn’t budge. From the corner of my eye, we saw a cat slink into the shadows. I remember our eyes meeting for a brief instant, Rahul’s and mine, before it dawned on us. We were expected to cross that line first! ‘Billi rastaa kaat gayi thi’, the cat had crossed in front of them and superstition says that if you cross that line first, you get bad luck! So this car just sat there, passing the bad luck to us, as we overtook and drove past the fateful cat line!

Suffice it to say that no bad luck chanced upon us, but we now have another beautiful memory of NDLS and a story to recount to our grandchildren, who hopefully wouldn’t encounter the madness of people so steeped in superstition (wishful thinking I know!).

 

#GirlyRoadTrip Day 0: Madness, bonding and nostalgia

After a crazy dash to the Delhi airport thanks to a truck turned turtle on NH8. Nupur and me took the flight to Mumbai with a distinct feeling that adventure was waiting for us with a vengeance!

Friday afternoon in Mumbai was dedicated to winding up Rachna’s house. After all, the trigger for the road trip was her big move back to Gurgaon. The three of us reached Juhi’s place one by one, after completing the errands that had fallen in our kitty. Juhidi as well call her is Nupur’s cousin, but also our buddy from the good old school days in Lucknow. Loads of nostalgia to fall back on, but also a genuine bonding. From sharing life experiences to politics and finally, just plain old giggle-fest, the stopover at Juhi’s was a perfect launch pad for the Girly Road Trip.

Gosh, even I will miss this house with the view!

Gosh, even I will miss this house with the view!

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While the last few cartons were being packed!

Rachna and Nupur- While the last few cartons were being packed!

Brain dead, but trying to look like she's thinking! All that packing must have done her in!

Brain dead, but trying to look like she’s thinking! All that packing must have done her in!

 

 

Things we take for granted now, like the ubiquitous A4 paper!

As I drove to work this morning, I saw two young men outside one of the those small standalone offices by the road. They were talking to each other, but what struck me was that both of them were folding pieces of A4 paper and putting them away. My mind flashed back to my childhood. Both my parents were academicians and our house was filled with those thin longer than A4 papers that came out of typewriters. Also those pista green sarkari papers with a blue margin line running one side.

Our childhood was filled with all manner of different types of stationery to write on. From the regular ruled notebooks to one side blank and one side ruled notebooks, to checked ones to long notebooks (register!) etc. We rarely used loose sheets of paper. Even drawings were usually made in drawing books of some kind. Or on one-side used papers that parents painstakingly got bound for us to scribble on.

A4 sheets aren't just used to write and draw! In a pilot's home, they get used for this!

A4 sheets aren’t just used to write and draw! In a pilot’s home, they get used for this!

A4 paper was a luxury back then. I remember teachers cribbing about how early they have to set exam papers because the ‘cyclostyle’ machine (ha!) would need to be free to make copies. Today the photocopy machine rules the roost and A4 paper is easily (but not freely we must remember) available. A lot of the work done by kids are not not in notebooks but on worksheets. The idea of working on loose pieces of paper floating around sort of bothers me, but it’s normal now even for adults in workplaces to pull an A4 out of the printer in the middle of a discussion without bothering to look for a notebook or diary to do the same.

Language of youth. These two participants of a Jan 2013 workshop in Delhi, one from a low-income settlement in Delhi and the other from Univ of Wisconsin are sharing music through the earphone! It;s a new world all right!

Language of youth. These two participants of a Jan 2013 workshop in Delhi, one from a low-income settlement in Delhi and the other from Univ of Wisconsin are sharing music through the earphone! It;s a new world all right!

This train of thought made me think about how many things we use nowadays were rare, expensive and exclusive items just a few years ago. Like earphones! Very few could afford portable music playing devices before, but now with mobile phones being ubiquitous, you see wires coming out of people’s ears wherever you go!

Life is changing and changing fast. Sometimes, It’s good to think back to what it was like before. No judgements, just nostalgia!

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

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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!

‘Happy birthday, mumma ke daddy!’ says Aadyaa

My dad would have turned 70 today, had he still been with us. I mentioned this while eating lunch today and darling Aadyaa spontaneously cried out a heartfelt wish to him, sending her wishes out into space to him, wherever he might be! Such a simple gesture, something only a child could execute with such grace and innocence.

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I spent a super relaxed day at home and at some point in the late evening, Aadyaa and me ended up playing table tennis, on the drawing room floor! She is only 5, but super interested in sports. As playing on the TT table is hard for her, I decided to experiment with sitting on the floor opposite each other and just getting used to hitting the ball at each other with the TT bat. Oh, it was so much fun! We used the tiles to carve out an imaginary table, invented new rules and even played a match of sorts!

All through, I reminisced about how daddy used to be an ace TT player and how he coached me. Evenings in the faculty club in SGPGI Lucknow, him and me, hitting away. I learnt about strategy, about when to use which serve, about assessing the opponent’s game and targeting their weaknesses. He spoke about the sportsman’s attitude (excuse the outdated gendered reference), about the need to win, about not always being ‘nice’! I don’t know how much of the lecturing got through at the time; mostly I valued the TT lessons as daddy-kiddo time! The TT tips did work and I continued to play for my college team after leaving Lucknow and even win sometimes.

Miss you, Dad. I learnt a lot about respecting young people from you and was fortunate to be the guinea pig for your parenting experiments! I hope I treat my kids with the same measured mix of leniency and discipline, with the same amount of trust and confidence and with the same sort of unconditional love!

Loving the feel of Chandni Chowk

A balmy breeze blows at me as I stand at Chandni Chowk watching the world go by. Some of the world is rushing back home, for others the job of unloading and loading goods still goes on and others seem to have just stepped out of home to sample the pleasures of the day. Shouting, bargaining, laughing and daydreaming people all co-exist in this place that is chaotic and timeless at the same time!
We have spent a few hours in Kuncha Mahajani parlaying with a wholesale diamond and gold jewellery merchant. Before that, we meandered through Kinari Bazaar, buying odds and ends. Grand old buildings, dilapidated and yet in better shape, outshine the newer monstrosities here. Glimpses of decently preserved streets tantalise me, but there is a momentum I am loathe to break to the human and non-human traffic that flows through the gales, kunchas and katras of Shahjahanabad.
An empty road in Gurgaon feels stressful, I thought, while a chock full bust full gali here feels restful, so measured and practised is the pace of life here. Even the contractor who stands beside me shouted at his labourer, a wizened old man, with practised ease, ordering him back to work because he stole a few moments of rest.
I imagined the street in its original glory, with a water body running down the centre. In my mind’s eye, I hear the sounds of the Azan, the tinkling of ghungroos and the whispered murmurings of a time long gone by, smell the fragrance of fresh flowers and ittar. I return to the present and smile. My city is beautiful still.

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