O dashehari aam, how I miss thee!

I like summers in Indiana, like a thousand times better than winters in Indiana. I actually dread winters here – the sub-zero chills, the driving on ice and snow, make me want to go hide somewhere warm. Summers are way better. Never too hot and almost perfect.

This summer though has been a little warmer than usual. Just recently Indianapolis had a record high temp day (about 110 F/41 C). You actually sweat when walking outside. I have rarely seen that happen here before. Most people are complaining about the heat. But in a crazy, convoluted way, I like the ‘bad weather’ – because it reminds me of home.

It is amazing how the smallest thing – a smell, a taste, a feeling – can take you to a time and place completely different from the present. A couple of days ago, I went for my daily 10 minute walk in the afternoon. It was hot outside, and the cold air from the air-conditioning hit me as soon as I entered the building. That immediately reminded me of coming back from school in the summers. My brother and I used to ride our bicycles to school ever since I was 11 or 12 and he was 9 or 10 years old. We used to be drenched in sweat when we came back home in the afternoon and immediately ran to the air-cooler to claim the place directly in front of the cooler (the kind that you fill with water so that the fan throws you cool air – middle class people in India did not have air conditioners back then). Mom usually had cold neembu-paani ready for us, which is a drink similar to lemonade made with water instead of soda. It has been 20 years since then, but the tastes and the sensations are as clear in my mind as yesterday.

I say summers here are ‘almost perfect’ because there are two of my favorite things missing – monsoons and dashehari aam (mango). Monsoons brought the much needed respite from the heat. We kids went crazy whenever it rained. We used to go out or on the terrace and play in the pouring rain and the puddles for hours. No schedules, no special swimming costumes, no tickets were needed for that pure, unadulterated fun.

And then there was Dashehari aam. For those of you who don’t know, Aam is the Hindi name for mango and Dashehari is a variety of mango very popular in the northern part of India. There are few other things in the world quite like peeling a whole dashehari aam using just your teeth and then digging into the cold deliciousness till there is no more left except the stone. During summer vacations, we would hunt the refrigerator multiple times in a day for seconds, thirds and fourths. Summer is not really summer without the heavenly taste of dashehari aam. Any other varieties just don’t cut it for me.

I could go on and on about how happy my childhood was, how uncomplicated the life back then and how things are just not the same anymore (a classic sign of getting old). A couple of other things are worth mentioning about the summers of my childhood – sitting down on the cold floor at my Daddy’s home (my father’s older brother, we call him Daddy) and eating the really spicy and yummy food Mummy (Aunt) made. Visiting and staying at my Beeji and Bauji’s (maternal grandparents) home during summer vacations where an extended family of anywhere between 10-20 people ate dinner together in the veranda everyday, and followed it up with bucket-ful of mangoes. The countless trips to the comic book store close to their house to rent comic books that I finished reading so quickly and voraciously that no one believed I was actually reading them (of course all expenses covered by grandpa). Sleeping on the terrace of our home at night (that was the only way to beat the heat when it got so hot and stuffy inside), counting stars, making shapes, making up all kinds of stories about the stars and the universe along with my brother.

What would I give to take a trip back to that time and place, to eat one more dashehari aam? Quite a lot, I would say, quite a lot.

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The colors of nostalgia

We celebrated our first Holi in the United States today. Although we have been here for almost four years now, it was only last year when we actually got to know some Indian people. For some reason, we could not find enough motivation or time to go looking for other desis. Plus we got our social fix from local friends and colleagues from India who used to visit from time to time. That also meant that sometimes we did not do anything to celebrate our festivals. After all, festivals are meant to be celebrated with other people. What fun would it be to celebrate all by yourself? That’s why we always ended up not doing much at all for these special days. It was in fact much easier and more fun celebrating Halloween and Christmas because everyone else around us was doing the same.

Last year was different. There was not one special day that was not celebrated with this new-found group of desi friends. It is a different kind of satisfaction, to meet people whose jokes you can always understand, who are just as crazy as you are about movies and cricket, and to see our son getting to know little bits of his culture even though he still thinks that the Diwali decoration that I got from India is actually for a Christmas tree.

You don’t really understand or realize what you have been missing until you get to experience it again. Keeping up with tradition, we had a Holi get-together at a friend’s place today. We got there, rang their door bell and waited. The door opened and suddenly people came running out to smear our faces with the powder colors called ‘gulaal’. The kids stood there watching with their mouths open, probably wondering what was it that had come over their parents. It will take them some more years to understand what is so much fun about this. Actually, I was a little taken aback too. I had expected it to be just another get-together with a little bit of rubbing gulaal on each others faces just for the sake of doing it. I had almost forgotten about the element of surprise that makes Holi so much fun.

Some of my best childhood memories are of the festival of Holi. Getting out of the house early, armed with gulaal, pichkaris (water guns) and small balloons filled with colored water. Hiding and waiting for our friends and other suspecting victims to come out so we could drench them before they could drench us. Playing with colors until the evening when our parents came to drag us back in. The fast colors that would not wash away and the tints of which would still be on many proud faces the next day at school.

Those were some of the best days of my life and sometimes it makes me sad to think that  those casual days of  no responsibility will never return, that I will never go back to that house on that street and will never meet those friends again. Life changes when you grow up. I just wish that even as adults, we could be as capable of finding happiness in the littlest things, as we did when we were kids. I wish I could be as impulsive and stupid as I was when I used to live in that house on that street, without being judged by anyone. I wish I could skip and jump instead of plain boring walking. Who knows, may be I will do that one of these days. Thanks to my desi friends for reminding me of the child that still lives inside me, I’m pretty sure I will do that one of these days.

Homage to a great lady

Big Naani (12 Apr 1929 – 15 Jan 2012)

Her grandsons teased her by addressing her by her first name Santosh ji. My son calls her Badi Naani (big grandma) because she is his great grandmother. I have known her since last 9 years or so, ever since I have known Chetan, and she is one of the youngest 82 year olds I have ever known.

She has always been particularly fond of Chetan and Chetan is so much like her that it makes you think he is her son and not her grandson. From the way he sticks his tongue out while concentrating on something, to being a cleanliness freak and a perfectionist in everything he does.

Ever since we moved away from India, one of my biggest fears has been that something wrong might happen to one of our loved ones in our absence and we might not be able to make it back in time. That fear became reality today. Santosh ji left us after suffering a major stroke a couple of days ago. But it seems like she had it planned all along.

As soon as we reached India for our 5 week visit in Nov-Dec last year, she fell really sick and had to be brought to Delhi for treatment and to stay at home till she got better. We went to pick her up from her home town about 10 hours drive from Delhi. We all went. She was in a hospital, unable to comprehend a lot of stuff, even unable to recognize some people she used to meet every day. Still she was concerned about whether there was enough food for us at her home. She still smiled and shook her head when she saw I was wearing jeans and not a traditional dress with enough jewelry. These are the things we all love about her and will miss beyond words.

There is comfort in the fact that we got to spend time with her before this happened. That her great grandson got to know her and she got to see him. That she did not suffer and departed gracefully.

Her husband, Chetan’s grandfather, passed away about 20 years ago. I have always heard her talk about Chowdhary Saab (that’s how she addressed him) with great nostalgia and admiration. I hope she will get to meet him and be with him soon. Free from the limitations and pains of an aging body. Young like she has always been.

Rest in peace Santosh ji. You will always be missed.

Misguided traditions?

A couple of weeks ago, many Indians celebrated a festival called Karvachauth. The main purpose of this tradition is for married women to fast all day for the long lives of their husbands. You are not supposed to eat or drink anything after daybreak until after moon-rise once you have looked at the moon through a sieve, offered water to it and prayed for your husband’s long life.

Like many other Indian festivals, this one too is blown out of proportions and highly romanticized by the Indian film industry. And there is the commercial side: the gifts, the dresses, the jewellery, the heena artists flocking every corner with long lines of ladies waiting for their turn to get their hands adorned.

I grew up with this tradition and have some great memories around it. I used to love watching my mother get dressed up and sitting with her through the ceremonies and prayers. Then at night, we kids kept popping in and out looking for the moon. When it finally came out (which was always very late), we would follow our mothers to a spot where it could be clearly seen so they could perform the puja (prayer) and we all could finally eat dinner!

This changed a little when I got married and had to fast myself. Not that I don’t want my husband to have a long life, I do, most times anyway; but because it makes me feel like a completely different person than who I am. I have never been into wearing elaborate saaris and jewelry and whenever I am made to do all that stuff, I feel like I’m somebody else. Just to give you an example, when Indian girls visit their parent’s house for the first time after they get married, they are supposed to really dress up, like a new bride, and 99.9999% of the times, they like to do that. Unfortunately I fall in that 0.0001% category. When I visited my parents for the first time after the wedding, I was in jeans and a shirt, everyone was shocked and I still get to hear about that from time to time.

Anyway, this background about my personality is just to assure you that not wanting to fast on Karvachauth has nothing to do with the fact that I cannot eat anything that day. Absolutely nothing to do with it, trust me! I still have fasted almost every other year since last eight years. I mean I had to when my mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law and mother call with expectant voices asking me whether I’m going to fast this year. After all, it is for the long life of their son/grandson/son-in-law. As per the folklore, if any woman does not fast on this day, her husband is sure to die soon. I don’t think many people believe it, but they still do it to follow the tradition/socialize/buy new clothes and look pretty/make their mothers-in-law happy. Although I have been a witness to this tradition all my life, this time I got a whole new perspective on it. My grandma-in-law called and gave me a blessing very commonly bestowed on married women in India. “Sada-Saubhagya-vati” which literally translates to “may you be ‘forever fortunate'” and implicitly means ‘may you always be married and die married’ or ‘may you die before your husband does’.

The oddness of this blessing had never struck me before. Living in the US has altered my perspective on certain things and this new attitude will probably make it hard for me to adjust when we go back home. However, that’s a different post altogether so let me just stick to the subject here. So for the first time in my life, I saw this tradition in a whole new light. Basically, it is all about making sure the wife dies before the husband so that she does not have to face the misfortune of becoming a widow. I can see where this is coming from. In the past, widows were not considered worthy of a decent life, not allowed to wear anything colorful, no jewelry, no makeup, were treated like servants and survived on leftovers. To me it seems like it must have been long ago because I have not met anyone who went through that, but I would not be surprised if it still happens in small towns, villages and remote areas of the country. Heck even in the modern day, in a metropolitan city, life would not be easy for a single woman. The question is – does that justify staying in a bad marriage? I’m sure there are millions of women in India who are beaten up by their abusive husbands every day and still fast to pray for his long life. That is how we have been trained to think and behave since centuries. The degree may vary based on your social, financial and academic standing, but the belief is still there. A woman is responsible for everything, from keeping her family healthy and well-fed, to making sure her husband outlives her, and more recently, providing a second income to the family all at the same time. And this notion is so ingrained into us that we never even question it. We just assume the responsibility and keep teaching our daughters the same things.

After this enlightening experience, I will never think about Karvachauth in the same way, ever again. Depending on who you are, you may be thinking I am crazy or you may be nodding your head in agreement, or something in between. Like always, I’m not trying to prove a point, just sharing random thoughts. So thanks for listening!

Just a song

I have a lot to write about but did not have the tempo to write this weekend. Instead, here’s a video of one of my favorite songs of all time. It is from a Hindi movie called ‘Swades’, which means ‘my country’.

Swades is the story of a NASA scientist who goes back home to visit the woman who brought him up. He goes to her village, spends some time there and gets to know the people and their problems. Now he’s back at NASA but can’t stop thinking about the people. He wants to go back and make a difference in their lives, and eventually ends up doing that in the movie.

I love this song. Never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It is especially close to my heart because I also see flashes from memory just like the actor in this song does, and have some similar reasons for wanting to go back.

http://youtu.be/NYewUWgHblY

The video quality is not so good, but it has English subtitles! I hope you enjoy watching it.