Thursday, March 29, 2012

Last Visits and Memories

One of the things I love about entering an Indian home is the mingled scents that greet you: fragrant incense from the shrine and the mouth-watering aromas of spices from the kitchen. Garlands of flowers strung over some doorways. Here are what some of the spices look like: Very pretty in the kitchen as you cook with them, as you can see. And 
 the grains are colorful, too. I used to keep glass jars of the
grains on my countertops, but then I needed the work space, so,

back they went behind closed doors.

You can see more of these spices at, where I downloaded this from.

We visited two more homes during our stay. One was to my husband's sister at the home of her youngest son, Madhu, and his family. As mentioned earlier, she keeps busy at three households, as she has a daughter in Bangalore and two sons, Madhu and Vasu, in Chennai.
My husband's sister, Pattu.
BR: Rohid, Malathi, Maithreyi; FR: Madhu, Pattu, me .
Like Ashok in Bangalore, Madhu is a tech expert, but he has a multitude of interests, including poetry and homeopathic medicine and acupressure. On our visit, he gave me five exercises to do that help control allergies and boost immunity, among other things. (The allergy ones seem to be working, too!) His daughter, Maithreyi is a doctor in homeopathic medicine and is now beginning her internship in Mangalore. Their son, Rohid (like Rohan in Bangalore), was studying for his twelfth standard finals in March. His wife, Malathi, is another excellent cook and has given me many great tips about how to make a dish come out right. 
A moment of humor between Malathi and Maithreyi
Unfortunately, I don't have pictures of Vasu and his wife, Srimati, who stopped by Virugambakkam one evening to see us. We were so busy talking, we forgot to take photos. They have a grown, married son and grandson, and a younger son, who stayed home—you guessed it—studying for exams. 

The bride, Archana, groom, Bahdri,
 and one of the  priests.
 I went to the married son's wedding
 six years ago on a visit, and I did 
take some pictures then. An Indian
wedding is a lovely event, dazzling 
in its array of beautiful saris, for one
thing, and a great social occasion 
where relatives and friends catch
up on news. And a great feast 
Vasu, Srimati, Archana & Bahdri

The Sunday after arrival on this particular trip, we visited Rajan's second brother, Narayanan, in an area called Tambaram, which is not far from the airport. He lives with his youngest son and wife, Vasanth and Nalini, who have two grown sons living in America. The eldest son, Arjun, got married last year, but we were unable to attend the wedding in India. Arjun sent us pictures of it, but we had the special pleasure of watching the CD of the wedding on our visit to Tambaram. 

The day we visited was also one of the days of the big cricket match between India and Australia. Cricket is HUGE in India; probably even bigger than football is here. So you know what we were all doing during much of the afternoon. Everyone was delirious with joy when India won that particular match. I do not have a picture of them cheering, but here are a couple of pictures of them:

Nalini & Vasanth

Nalini, Vasanth, Rajan

There are so many moments that linger in memory after I come home from visiting
India. Moments of visits with family, and moments of the sights and sounds during every journey: bougainvillea on compound walls, cows wandering roads, temples with painted gateways and towers, and every kind of traffic imaginable, including oxen carts and the occasional elephant. Nettu-lingam trees rising like tall, slender-but-bushy dusters; coconut palms, banana palms. The cries of vendors, selling their wares from door to door, and the stall where we take our clothes for ironing. Heat and dust. And always the warmth of the people. I hope I've been able to share just a little of it with you, and I hope you've enjoyed the journey. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Family Visits in Chennai

The Saturday after arrival, we visited my husband's "doctor brother", Parthasarathi, who lives with his wife, Vasantha, son, Hari, and Hari's family in a section of Chennai called Panaiyur. As I mentioned in my last post, Chennai is so spread out whole sections warrant a name of their own. Travel time has to be calculated. Twenty miles can be an hour's journey in non-rush-hour traffic. During commuter hours it's longer.  

Panaiyur is a rural area, on the way to Mahabalipuram (a city famous for its temples), and is a few blocks from the ocean. A lovely breeze cools the air. Houses are on large lots that are verdant with trees and bushes. The family's home is new to them, but the previous owner designed the house along lines that are compatible with the Indian version of Feng Shui. It's spacious, with balconies and arches. In the center hall—what we would call the living room—a swing suspends from the ceiling, which I loved sitting on. (Here we are below, chatting and swinging, chatting and swinging.)
Me, Soundara, Vasantha

Parthasarathy has always loved plants, so he spends a lot of time gardening, when he isn't perusing medical journals. (He is retired, but like everyone in the family, he loves continuing to learn and do research. Whenever we go to India, my husband consults him with any medical questions, as he can be trusted to know the latest medical wisdom.)  
Parthasarathy, Rajan's 3rd brother, who specialized in Tuberculosis, but stays current on developments in other medical concerns as well.

Me, Vidya, Anusha, & Hari, contemplating Patrhasarathi's garden.
3 brothers, Parthasarathy, Ranganathan, & Rajan.
Anirud, Adithya in back, Vidhya, Hari, in front. A beautiful family. I would love to paint a portrait of them.

I had met Hari's wife, Vidya and their son, once before, on our second visit to India in 1989. Adithya was only a toddler then, and Hari was working abroad. And I met Hari for the first time at another grand-nephew's wedding, in 2006. It was nice to spend time with them all together, and get to know them better, along with their youngest son, Anirud, who has just started college. 

Vidya speaks and teaches French. When she was in college, her French class visited Switzerland in an area not far from where my nephew, David, and his wife, Brigitte, live. (How I wished there was a way to introduce them.) A grandniece, Parthasarathi's and Vasantha's granddaughter,Anusha, joined us for lunch (a new feast, since Vasantha is another fabulous cook in the family.) Anusha's sister lives in Fremont, California and just recently had a new baby girl, so Vasantha made arrangements to send back frocks for her. 

The day passed much too quickly. But we were thankful for the chance to see them all again. On return to California, poems about India have kept welling up in my mind, inspired by journeys across the vast city and visits to all the households. 

How about you? Do family visits inspire your urge to write? Do visits to other lands make your thoughts turn to poetry?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Virugambakkam, Home Away from Home When We're in Chennai

When we go to Chennai, we stay with Rajan's eldest brother, Ranganathan, and our sister-in-law, Soundara, in an area called Virugambakkam, and we visit other relatives from there. (Chennai is so huge and sprawled out, that areas or districts have names of their own, almost like mini-cities.) Imagine street after street after street, going on for miles and miles. And to get a real feel for traveling in the city, go to this site. 

As soon as Ravi and Ranganathan brought us from the station, Soundara brought us good, strong coffee with milk and sugar. Let me say, there is nothing as heart-warming as South Indian coffee. (And I speak as one who loves the coffee in Spain.) There's a special technique in making South Indian coffee and combining the hot milk, pouring it back and forth and then serving it, and it was just the thing to shake off our travel weariness. 
(There is also a special technique to drinking this coffee in such a way that the cup never touches one's lips. Everyone makes it look so effortless that I once tried it, sure that it was easily done. Well, it is not. I got coffee all over me!) You can learn more about making it and serving it and the utensils required at this blog site. (It's also a site for wonderful Indian recipes. You'll really want to pay a visit.)

Ravi (our nephew) had to go to work after he dropped us at the house. Later in the morning his father (Rajan's 2nd brother) came over, and the morning was spent with the brothers visiting and other relatives telephoning to set up times for visits. Later in the afternoon, Soundara and Rajan and I walked over to visit with Kalyani's family three streets away. (Raghavan and Kalyani -- another brother and sister-in-law -- live in Pittsburgh, but they own the house at Virugambakkam.) A couple of weeks after our return from the trip, Kalyani's mother passed away; it's a time of sadness for them all, so I will wait to post about the paintings Renukka (Kalyani's sister-in-law) does. This just isn't the time.

Each time we go to India, by the third day I feel I've been there forever. Time seems to stand still there, and India has a way of just seeping into your psyche as daily routines unfold. We stay in our usual corner room, and each morning I wake again to the odd call of the Indian cuckoo, a different sound from that of the European cuckoo. In previous trips I've only ever heard one calling again and again, and always in the morning. This time there was a whole chorus of voices throughout the day. You can hear the cuckoo for yourself at this site. You can see a picture of one on this page at Wikipedia, since I couldn't ever capture it on film myself. They're really rather large birds, as you can see. 

As the morning unfolds, incense floats from the shrine where Ranganathan does poojai. He gives us each a palmful of holy water, and a small piece of banana, and, for me, flowers for my hair. Overhead fans whir overhead, stirring the heat, while delicious aromas float from the kitchen, because Soundara is a master cook. (Pattu had planned to come to Chennai and help Soundara with the cooking, but then she caught a virus, and her doctor told her to stay home for a week.) 

Not being Brahman, I couldn't help Soundara in the kitchen (though she was generous with her recipes and let me see how she prepared them). So all alone she served up feasts during our stay: vangibath, a spiced mixture of eggplant and rice; idlis that were marvels of fluffiness with sambar; snake gourd chopped fine and spiced. I could go on and on. As for tiffins: gulab jaman,deep fried dough balls soaked in syrup; ladu,an incredible "semi-sweet" made from lentil flour, sugar, and ghee, that literally melts in your mouth; savories like ribbon and vadai, another treat made from soaked dhal that has been ground to a thick dough flavored with chiles and salt and then deep fried.

Soundara is in her 80s and gets tinier each time I see her.Each time her face seems sweeter, if that's possible. She had her teeth all removed recently, but her smile is no less radiant. Rajan was four years old when she married Ranganathan, and she has always held a special place in my husband's heart. And I know she enjoys so much the opportunity to talk with Rajan face to face, even though we call often from California. It never is the same, is it?

Ranganathan, turning 90, was his same kindly, enlightened self. A devout Hindu, he is open and tolerant to all religions. When we visit, he tells me more about the Mahabharata, or the Upanishads, or other sacred writings that he continues to study. They say good people shine from afar, and these two are simply distilled goodness. I miss them when we come home.
A photo Rajan took of Ranganathan.

Soundara on the right; Shamala, on the left, comes once a day and helps with housework.

When we are there, I love listening to Tamil swirling around my ears. All of our relatives speak English, but for catching up on news, it's quicker and easier for my husband and them to speak in Tamil, while he translates to me. I have valiantly tried to learn Tamil, but it's a challenge for one who didn't learn it young. The script is so different, and the alphabet is composed of many more vowels and consonants than in English. Not only that, the written symbol is slightly different for each vowel/syllable combination. You can see the whole alphabet at Wikipedia

The grammar is different, too, because like some other South Indian languages, Tamil is not Indo-European, but Dravidian. So, I content myself with simply appreciating the lovely sound of it when I'm there, and learning a few serviceable phrases (that I'm sure I pronounce all wrong.) Our relatives all promise that if I stayed there a year, I would be fluent in Tamil, but they are being kind, I know. This is a very kind family in so many ways.

Next post will be about our visits and visitors.

Monday, March 5, 2012

India—Part One, Bangalore

You can see a picture of a banyan tree on Wikipedia at this site. (We took cameras, but kept forgetting to use them.) You see banyan trees in both Bangalore and in Chennai. I like to call a banyan tree "the tree where one tree makes a whole forest".

The dog is well again! The student art show is on display (which deserves a post of its own, one of these days.) And now, at last, India. 

It's hard to believe that two weeks ago Saturday afternoon we were driving home from the San Francisco airport after about twenty-three hours spent either in a plane or waiting for one. And that two weeks before that we were being met at the airport in Bangalore by our nephew after a similar flight. (No wonder we were so jet-lagged!)

We have grown nieces and nephews (with families) and a sister-in-law in Bangalore. During two earlier trips to Chennai (formerly Madras), we had not been able to include Bangalore in our visits. So Bangalore was our first stop this time. Our nephew, Ashok met us at the airport at 5:00 a.m. We stayed with him and his family, and had a wonderful visit with him, his wife, Gayatri, their two children, Rohan and Tarun, and our sister-in-law, Malathi. And also the family dog, Caesar, a 90-pound golden labrador who longs to be a lap dog. I miss them all already! Here's a picture of us all -- minus Caesar: 

On the very first day (Sunday) I also met up a writer friend I met online a little over two years ago, Rachna Chhabria. We had exchanged copies of our books and have followed each other's blogs, and she was a great help to me in navigating aspects of FaceBook. She teaches creative writing at Mount Carmel College. 

Her blog,  Rachna's Scriptorium, always has interesting insights and good advice about writing.  It was a pleasure to meet her in person. Here we are, sitting on a log in Cubbon Park, pondering the hopes and frustrations of writing.

Later in the day, the family left for a graduation ceremony for Rohan's class, twelfth standard. We stayed home, and another niece, Priya, and her husband Balajit came over for a visit. We caught up on news of their two grown children and enjoyed the treats Priya brought — pumpkin Halva and a savory snack called "ribbon" because of the dough's ribbon shape as it is forced through a slat, then deep-fried. (Again, I am waiting for her to send pictures that I can post.)

On Monday, we visited our niece, Nirmala, her mother (Rajan's sister, Pattu, who also has two sons with families in Chennai. Pattu is a much-in-demand grandmother in three households.) We had last seen Nirmala's son, Murari, in California, where he was working on a project, but he is back in Bangalore now. Once again, we forgot our cameras, but luckily Murari took pictures and sent them. 

Malathi had come with us, so it was nice catch-up time for sisters-in-law. Here we all are after a wonderful lunch prepared by Nirmala and Pattu. (Rajan's family is full of wonderful cooks, and every time we visit, I return home with a new batch of recipes.)

Tuesday we had originally planned to travel by car to Belur and Halibid, two awesome temples dating back to the twelfth century and the Hoysala Dynasty. Well, jet lag was kicking in and we changed our minds. We would have had get up at 6:00 a.m. to be ready for a four-and-a-half-hour trip each way with about two hours at each temple, and we probably would be wanting to sleep at the crucial times when we should be admiring the sculptures. So, we passed on the trip, deciding that in a future trip we'll actually take lodgings close by and spend two days there so that we can truly enjoy it. We did take this trip together with family members about twenty years ago, before we had digital cameras; and about forty years ago my husband had taken a bus trip to the temples and taken several black and white photos. To give you some idea of the stunning beauty of the sculptural work, you can go to this website:  You'll see why we want to go again and get images of our own.

But we were glad to stay home with Gayatri and Malathi and rest up from the trip. Ashok was at work; Tarun was at school, and Rohan was studying for his finals. I had time to write down a slew of recipes. And we shopped at a fabulous handicraft store on MG Road (MG for Mahatma Gandhi) for souvenirs to bring home. 

Wednesday was our last day in Bangalore. We went with Gayatri to the movies at a huge shopping mall on a street near MG Road. Afterwards Gayatri and I went clothes shopping at a six-story department store while Rajan had coffee and a nice visit with one of his classmates from engineering college that he made contact with again two years ago when we went to his Golden Jubilee Class Reunion.

A few words about Bangalore itself. The first time I saw it, I was struck by all the beautiful trees and flowering bushes. In fact, it has been referred to in the past as a "garden city". But, in recent years, it has become a sort of "Silicon Valley" due to the boom in digital technology. (Almost all of my nieces and nephews in India have computer-related businesses and projects.) There has been a population influx, and the city has had a hard time expanding roads and infrastructures fast enough to accommodate it. Lots of trees have been cut down to make way for wider streets or new buildings. Still, beautiful trees abound, even if they are not as plentiful as before. The day we went to the movies, we rode in on a local "rapid transit" train. The section we rode was elevated, so you really had a sense, looking out the window, of riding through treetops. And the trees in India are amazing: Banyan, Bottle Brush, the pink-blooming Tabebuia Rosea, the yellow-blooming Tabebuia Argentea. (Clici on the sites to see them.)

We spent a last quiet evening at home enjoying the family, playing board games and talking. And then we went to the train station to catch the 11:00 p.m. night-train to Chennai. It was sad to say goodbye, even while feeling excited about the next part of our journey. 

As for the night train itself: We were in a sleeper car with four bunks with curtains providing privacy. We preferred to share the bottom bunk, head to toe, and store our bags on the top bunk, looking out the window until we were tired enough to sleep. I have always had a thing about trains, and my first long train ride was the trip from Chennai to Tiruchirapalli, again, by night, nearly thirty years ago. On that ride, too, I was more interested in looking out the window at the silhouetted landscape flowing by than in sleeping. But this time, I actually did doze off until we rolled into the station in Chennai at 4:00 a.m. And what a difference! It was pleasantly cool in Bangalore when we entered the train. We stepped off the train into a surrounding heat. 

Almost as soon as we set our bags on the platform, Rajan's eldest brother, Ranganathan, and Ravi, Nirmala's husband, who is working in Chennai and goes home on week-ends, greeted us and picked up our bags. Then we set off for the waiting car and the trip home to Virugambakkam, the name for their district, since Chennai is so spread out.

Stay tuned for India, Part Two—Chennai