Happy New Year!

In the spirit of new beginnings, I’m beginning something new. Resolutions are passé, or at least the procrastinator in me thinks they are. The best way to get anything done is to declare it to the world, I was once told. And so here goes: I am going to stretch my limits with not one, but TWO reading challenges this year!

Reading Challenge #1: Diversity on the Shelf

Diversity on the Shelf 2014

PoC issues have been at the forefront of my interests in the last year, and so I’m going to take that forward with the Diversity on the Shelf challenge. I’m aiming for the 4th shelf (19-24 books), and I hope to be able to increase it to 5th by the middle of the year (fingers crossed!).

I will be starting the challenge with English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee.

English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Reading Challenge #2: Indian Quills Reading Challenge

Crossing over challenges is allowed, apparently. So I will be aiming to read 24 books by authors of Indian origin. However, as part of this challenge, I will also be writing reviews for them as I go along.

And there we have it! My declaration to the world that I hope to stick by as the seasons wear on.

Alrighty, then. I have a book to read. Toodles.

Birthday # 4

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Today’s Scintilla Project prompt that inspired my story is “Post a photo of yourself from before age 10. Write about what you remember of the day the photo was taken. It may not be a full story—it may just be flashes of event and emotion—but tap into the child you were as much as you can.” 

 

When my father posted this picture, on Facebook, of me cutting birthday cake the day I turned four, someone was quick to notice the undivided attention the cake was getting from the children around the table. “At that age, is there much else to look forward to?” I asked in return.

Indeed there was nothing much else to look forward to… except maybe birthday gifts? But that was still a few birthdays away, when my response to “Happy birthday” would be “So what did you get me?”

That day, I remember a lesson… the alphabet, maybe? Or an activity… how to somersault, perhaps? The doorbell sounds and the teacher answers the door. The next thing I remember is dancing around my father, mother and pudgy 6-month old brother as the words BIRTHDAY and CAKE fill the room. My mother is fashionably dressed, a paradox for the eighties, in a salwar khameez and carries my brother dressed in cute little blue onesies, his eyes wide open in wonder at this strange human ritual. My father takes pictures.

In the picture, the cake says “Happy Birthday, Dear Anju”. Anju, my short name, my pet name, for in those days not many insisted I be called by my birth certificate name.

I don’t remember much after this, but I must have enjoyed that cake. Nursery was a fun place to be in as a child, so why wouldn’t I?

Matriarch

Alas, I fell of the #Scintilla13 wagon! The Scintilla Project prompt for Day 12 that inspired my story is “Those that went before us have walked paths that we may never fully understand. Talk about a time when you learned something important about your family history.” 

 

He had only two siblings, I knew that, who was the third one in the picture? “A cousin”, he said, and I believed him. Perhaps this was a cousin that spent a lot of time with the family, lived or studied nearby. Perhaps that’s why she was in every other photograph of the family… but what of her parents and brothers or sisters? “Only two half-brothers and a step-mother”, I was told. What about them then? Were there no pictures? My questions were only met with silence.

And then there was the matriarch. Unforgiving and critical, her sharp tongue and even sharper cane made up for her shortness in her physical stature. I was told she kept this cane on a high shelf, and her children swore she would grow an inch taller just to be able to get it down when they had been up to no good. I was often told by family members that I reminded them of her, but, truth be told, I was afraid of her more than the others were… Until I discovered that she had brought in the fourth one, the one without family in the photographs, the victim of petty family issues. And then I heard of the illness. The one with the diagnosis that had everybody sit down with their heads in their hands, a bad gesture for the believing, while she scoffed at them and her six-month deadline, and continued to live for over thirty years more. This didn’t change her unforgiving and critical nature. Neither did the fall in the kitchen. She could still charge about the house on a walker just fine. No sir, she was still unforgiving and critical, but her stories hid her faults and changed my fear of her into pure respect and awe, and humble pride that I should remind family members of her, even five years after her passing.

Passing the Buck Between Utensils

Alas, I fell of the #Scintilla13 wagon! The Scintilla Project prompt for Day 11 that inspired my story is “Write about an experience you had that was so strange or incredible, it sounds like it could have been made up.” 

 

It was one of those days. I looked at the menu card inscribed in green on the cafeteria white board. Gulab jamun, it said, in big bold handwritten letters. I imagined the little round flour and curd dumplings travelling towards my mouth, as they dripped with viscous sugar syrup, and the saliva rushed into my mouth and thickly coated my tongue. I counted the change in my pocket. It was just enough. I walked over to the cashier.

“One plate gulab jamun.

He gave me a token that I then handed over to the server. With a stainless steel bowl of dessert in my hand, I joined my friends at the table as they were in the middle of a worldly discussion, the subject of which I’m not entirely sure right now.

Gulab jamun, yum,” somebody said. I flashed a wide smile in return.

I picked up my spoon and proceeded to cut a dumpling in half with the sharp edge of it. But I could barely break past the skin of the little dessert ball. Huh, I thought to myself, that’s odd. I gently applied more pressure, but whatever I was doing was not enough, because the spoon wouldn’t even break past what seemed like a rock hard core, a good thing on humans, but not on dessert. As I struggled visibly and began to chuckle and grunt at the absurdity of the situation, my friend Raoul offered to try his hand at it.

“Be my guest”.

Raoul poked and prodded at the dessert in question, but it refused to budge. At this point, I doubt there was anybody at the table who wanted to eat the gulab jamun more than they just wanted to be the one to cut it open.

Finally, after much pressing and shoving, Raoul stabbed the dumpling and directed his body weight onto the spoon. And then the strangest thing happened. The spoon bent!

Following the raucous laughter at the table, Raoul, Wingy and I proceeded to display to the server the not-so-superior quality of their dessert. The server boy scratched his head as the bent spoon and unbroken dumpling were placed before him.

He looked at us and said in Tamil, very sincerely, “Change your spoon”.

More laughter followed. “Change your gulab jamun first!” exclaimed Raoul as we put away the dessert and headed to the cashier to demand my money back.

Memories of a Childhood

Alas, I fell of the #Scintilla13 wagon! The Scintilla Project prompt for Day 10 that inspired my story is “Write about spending time with a baby or child under the age of two. The challenge: if you’re a parent, do not talk about your own child.” 

 

Kids also happen to do the darndest things. Likemy youngest niece, all of two years and four months, nearly jumped for joy when her mom brought her a plate of dessert at the end of our meal at Avenue Regent in Ernakulam. “Hhhaaiiii”, she yelped when she saw the sweets being brought for her, and proceeded to stare in absolute delight at the goodies for a whole three minutes… before we had to prompt her to eat them.

I guess this is probably what they meant by “feast for the eyes”. LOL.

I still remember what most of that afternoon looked like, left preserved in my memory around the expression of this child’s pure happiness brought on by the sights and smells of all things decadent.

I remember how, back at my aunt’s house, she strolled through the dining room, a wooden flute in hand, with which she whacked my dad on the leg and then threw it away and pretended nothing happened with a two-year-old’s version of la la la la

I remember how the first thing she did when her family moved to our city was run away with my toothbrush like I could never catch up with her.

I remember photographing her so much and never growing tired of it.

I remember her grumpy days when she didn’t want to look any of us in the eye.

I remember her utterly cute disrespect for structure and hierarchy, and I also remember reciting the story of it for months afterward.

I remember her growing and adjusting, and being such a beautiful child, in every sense of the word.

I remember her painfully sad expression at the airport saying goodbye to us after the family decided to move to another city. At that moment, I remember most of all my broken heart as I wondered if she would ever think of us as fondly as we thought of her, and it still aches to think of all the things that may mean I don’t see her again for a long time to come. I really miss her.

Lost in the City

Today’s Scintilla Project prompt that inspired my story is “Talk about where you were going the day you got lost. Were you alone? Did you ever get to where you meant to go?” 

 

My first poem came to me, as a series of words, when my father was driving my mother, my younger brother and me to the supermarket. I was 6 years old at the time. I tossed the poem around in my head for a while before I turned to mother as we walked toward our car with bags of groceries in hand.

Amma, I wrote a poem. Would you like to hear it?”

“Sure.”

“I was lost in the city, a policeman found me…”, and I continued to recite my masterpiece. I don’t remember it much, except it ended with the policeman returning me home safely to my relieved parents and sleeping brother.

When I was done, my mother asked in slight disbelief, “Where did you read that?”

“I wrote it, Amma.”

The next thing I remember is her sitting me down at a table to help me put to paper the words that had been marinating in my brain through our trip to the grocery store. We titled it “Lost in the City” and, in a couple of weeks, it was published in the Young Times, a popular children’s and young adults’ magazine in the Middle East. It was published alongside a picture of me, one of my favorites; my short hair neatly combed to one side gleams in studio lights. I wear gold hoops in my ears and a white and blue summer dress with seashell motifs. My eyes are bright, with a hint of an impish smile. As I look at the picture today, I see they are full of promise, full of hope.

Since then, I wrote several poems and pieces that always found themselves in some publication or the other, thanks to my very proud and supportive parents. I really felt like I could write for the rest of my days, but the life reared its numerous practical heads and clouded my judgment, already influenced by societal and familial expectations. I made a compromise. To society I said, I choose a noble profession, and to myself I said, I choose a creative one. I picked architecture.

But architecture school had other plans for me. And as if the pain and suffering of it the first time wasn’t enough, I decided to do it again, and the second time around, it was worse. Bricks of failure crumbled down upon me, and I worked long and hard to rebuild and salvage the walls of my identity. When that was done, I went on in my new life.

And then I found theater. It called to me, beckoned me shamelessly and I followed it to the edge of my world until I fell off the edge, into the unknown. However, very much like in a dream, I was on my feet again, dabbling in this and that to find meaning and money in life.

And then I made a trip across a few ponds to the United States. New partner and no job meant a different life, and as I scrambled and grasped at straws to put together a picture of a life that I felt I could lead, I turned around and saw that the past was like a lone house in the distance that would disappear with a few more steps. I held my husband’s hand and trundled along, for it was the complete picture that was more important at the time.

Today I’m trying to fit a piece in my hand that says WRITING into the jigsaw puzzle of my life. Somewhere there are pieces that read ARCHITECTURE, THEATER, MEANING, MONEY, Ph.D., TEACHING, URBAN DESIGN, and so many others that make my head spin. I look around me, but don’t recognize these surroundings. I am truly lost in the city of my constructs of image and identity.

Now would be a good time for that policeman to come by and take me home by the hand to family with open arms.

Sunday Breakfast at the Mess

Today’s Scintilla Project prompt that inspired my story is “Many of our fondest memories are associated with food. Describe a memorable experience that took place while preparing or eating food.” 

Back in the day, when I was just another student at architecture school, I used to love Sunday mornings. Apart from the fact that they were filled with endless possibilities, the doom of a Monday deadline at least a whole evening of procrastination away, nothing could quite compare to waking up and enjoying the feeling of nowhere to go as you sank your body deeper into the pillow and mattress while birds chattered somewhere in the distance. And it was always made better by Sunday breakfast at the mess.

Now, I have to say, food at the mess was not always good. But I enjoyed Sunday mornings in particular because it was dosa day. Not just any dosa day, but dosa-with-creamy-potato-masala-and-peanut-chutney day. Sometimes, I would wait for all week for Sunday morning to arrive because of the lingering taste of these crispy pancakes made with wonderful rice and lentil batter that fermented so well it exploded with bubbles when poured on a hot stove. That, and Oh Lord, the potato masala… Creamy, yummy potatoes with undertones of onion, ginger and chilies, cooked until they turned to butter in your mouth. And the peanut chutney: gritty, rich old peanut chutney to balance the zing of the potato masala. There was something so homely in those meals, that as I washed it all down with piping hot filter coffee served in a stainless steel tumbler, I never felt I was far away from home or family. Oh, how I loved Sunday breakfast.

One such Sunday morning, my friend H woke me up and together we ambled along to grab the last of the dosas before the mess closed before lunch, but not before we stopped by K’s bed and asked if she was going to join us. She muttered something from under her pillow before we walked off; it wasn’t unusual for K to miss breakfast anyway.

I spent the rest of morning working on some drawings to the happy feeling of doa-potato-peanut-filter coffee in my belly. And then lunchtime arrived, and H came by to get me again. This time we went straight to K, still sound asleep in her bed, and shook her until we got a satisfactory answer from her.

“I’ll join you in fifteen minutes.”

Fifteen minutes later, at the mess, H and I sat in front of our plates as the stray grains of rice and dal on our fingers and empty plates dried up. Still no sign of K. They literally had to kick us out of the mess to close the doors in preparation of dinner, and we went straight back to K, still no farther from her bed than she was when we left her. It was 2.30pm now. H was furious.

“Well, if that’s where you like to stay, that’s where you’ll stay!” she announced. K remained silent. H grabbed a piece of rope to be used in an architectural model, and playfully began to bind K’s hands and feet to the bed. K’s protests, though feeble for her well-rested state, fell on deaf ears. And I had turned into the mob, laughing along with H as I pinned K’s hands and feet to the frame. After the work was done, H stepped back and took a picture for posterity.

“Guys, let me go.”

“You aren’t going to achieve anything by starving yourself”, said H.

“What are you going to achieve by tying me to my bed?!”

“It’s a punishment.”

“Guys”, K was so soft spoken, her sternness came as a surprise.

“Alright, but you have to promise not to skip your meals like this.”

“Ok, I promise”, she said, rather quarter-heartedly as we began to untie her.

After she had brushed her teeth, she went straight to her shelf and picked up a bag of spicy crisps and chomped away as H and I looked on in slight disgust.

“Is that your ‘breakfast’?” H asked with air quotes. K flashed a mouthful smile at us in response.

“I give up! I can’t make this girl eat her meals properly anymore. K, your mother will hear of this soon”, threatened H.

K switched on her computer as she turned to us “They gave up on me long ago!”

On hindsight, I suppose K was never attached to food emotionally the way H and I were.