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The Chennai Chronicles – Part 3 (The Wedding)

My cousin G’s wedding was one of the reasons I really wanted to be in Chennai for the winter holidays. She called me sometime in August when she was fixing the date and the venue and confirmed that the kids and P were off for Christmas/New Year. I assured her that we would make it and then all our plans went phut! ( see http://www.punctuatelife.com/2013/01/14/the-chennai-chronicles-part-1/)

The wedding was in the last week of December and was preceded by a Mehendi ceremony. The boys didn’t want to go, so A and I went with my parents and brother. It was by the beach, in an open pavilion with divans and bolsters along the low walls. G was sitting at the far end of the room, her feet covered with mehendi (henna tattoos). A lady was working on her hands and deftly covering it with fine lines of green paste from a cone.

My daughter couldn’t wait to get mehendi on her hands, so my mom and I had to take turns feeding her. I was paranoid that she would get it on her nice clothes.  I kept nagging her to stretch her arms out and not touch her clothes. Soon after I put mehendi on my hands, I sat down on the couch to talk to G. I ended up putting my hands on my lap and got it all over my saree. I had to wash it all off and also had a wet spot on the front of my saree. So much for nagging A about not getting it on her clothes.

The groom’s side is Finnish and G got all the ladies sarees with matching blouses, which they wore to the mehendi ceremony. With matching bangles and they were very eager to do some Bollywood moves. So my brother stepped up and decided to lead. It was a lot of fun to dance in a group and the steps were so funny that we were in stitches by the end of the dance.

The Finnish ladies were not done and went on to do some fine gyrations that made the rest of us applaud in admiration. There was also a Killi Josiyam person. Basically tarot cards which are laid out in front of a parrot. The killi or parrot walks over the cards and picks one with its beak. The bird hands it over to the astrologer who then interprets it. My daughter gave it a shot and the parrot picked Unnikrishna (baby Krishna) and the astrologer rattled off some well-rehearsed lines – work hard at school. Donate to charity (which was odd!)

We ate a sumptuous dinner and then drove back home. Most of the guests were staying at the hotel and so the party continued for several hours after us city dwellers had called it a night.

The wedding was the next day. The mandapam was supposed to be set up outside but the rain played spoilsport and the ceremony had to be indoors. The path outside, with stairs leading up to the mandap was strewn with flowers. There were plates of roses all along the low walls of the verandah. The mandapam was beautifully decorated with white flowers and lotuses. G looked divine in her gold zari saree, exquisite choli and traditional jewellery. J was wearing a sherwani which was almost the same color and carried it off pretty well. I figured he was hot in it (although it was officially winter in Chennai – if you can call misty weather with a few scattered downpours, winter!)

They made a beautiful couple and I hope they live a long life together making many happy memories and with much laughter and joy.

It was a traditional Kerala wedding. They say Kerala weddings are so short that if you blink you’ll miss it. So here’s how it’s done. The bridegroom waits for the bride at the mandapam. The bride walks to mandapam accompanied by little girls carrying trays of flowers and women (both single and married) carrying oil lamps. My daughter and I were part of that group. G joined J at the mandapam and he tied the taali (mangalsutra or chain with a small pendant that consecrates the union) with the nadaswaram and thavil playing in the background. They exchanged garlands and then got the blessings of all the older family members. They first touched the feet of their parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles. Then the rest of the gathering went up to the couple and threw rice & flowers (akshata) on them and blessed them.

J’s side of the family brought some of their wedding traditions to the table. After a toast by the groom’s brother some of the ladies sang Finnish songs (complete with a drum) and actions. Not one to be outdone, G’s aunt decided to sing a Hebrew song – Hava Nagila and we all joined in.

And then there was the elephant! Yes a real live elephant. The not-so-eager groom was garlanded by the pachyderm. Locals, expats, everyone alike were uber excited to see the elephant (my kids included!) The cameras kept flashing and everyone wanted to pose with the animal.

After dinner, which was a delectable spread (my mouth is watering just thinking about it!) everyone was in the mood for dancing. After a few rounds of Finnish dancing, holding hands and going around in a circle, my brother did his number. Then the group kinda split up and P and I went to get the kids. The kids were all pumped up and wanted to keep dancing. So P and I ended up dancing with them at the edge of the dance floor. After a while we got tired but A & N didn’t want to call it quits.

And then it happened. The DJ played this Korean song that went viral – Gangnam style. N had learnt all the moves and he broke into an animated dance. It was so much fun to watch this little guy do all the moves. The grand finale – he slid between my brother’s legs like they do in the video. It was hilarious!

When we had enough of the dancing, we took a walk to the beach and stood there breathing in the salty night air and soaking up the sound of the waves lapping onto the moonlit shore. We then drove back to the city.

I’ll remember this wedding for a long long time. Not because of the elephant or the venue or anything. But just because it was the first wedding my kids have ever attended. Also, it was so much fun and sometimes I wish I was still in India so I could dress up and go for a wedding every month (oh yeah! and that’s just a conservative estimate!). Thank you G and J for inviting us! God bless you.


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The Chennai Chronicles – Part 2 (People and Places)

32 days in Chennai. 32 glorious days. I met many old friends and made several acquaintances. So many that I can’t possibly write about every person I met. I just picked a few experiences that I think others would like to read about. But just so you know whether I met someone for 10 minutes or spent an entire day with them, I hold all of my friends close to my heart. Each feeds some part of my soul and enriches my life in a way only he/she can.

Even before I started from the U.S. I was determined to meet my soul sister N. We couldn’t meet in 2011 and I was upset I couldn’t make the trip to Pondicherry. Ever since I found her in 2010 (see http://www.punctuatelife.com/2012/02/19/finding-a-long-lost-love/) she has been my rock as far as my writing goes. She is always there for me, encouraging me and making me believe that I had it in me to write stuff that people would actually want to read. So much so that now ‘I’ think I’m capable of writing a book!

P wanted to take me but he had some urgent matters to attend to. So I drove down to Pondicherry (the very same place where Life of Pi was filmed) with my parents, my brother and the kids. I was seeing her after 10 years and the whole experience was surreal. It felt like we were in a dream. She was a hostess par excellence. We could smell the aroma of all the delicacies wafting from her kitchen even before we stepped into her house. Vada, chicken 65, tea, coffee, special Bengali sweets and kheer. And her sweet smile never left her face. I can see it now. I can feel the purity of her love which elevated me to heights that I never dreamt were possible for me. If you have but only one friend in this lonely world then let that friend be like N.

She took us all out to lunch at the ‘Rendezvous’ and refused to let us pick up the tab. She just wouldn’t hear of it. Such is the generosity of her soul. She wouldn’t let me ride in the car. So I rode with her on her bike, which was a ‘Pleasure’ literally! She did not want to waste one second of my trip and I was fighting sleep so I could talk to her face to face. Like lunch wasn’t enough, she hauled us off to a pastry shop for dessert. And to top it all a specially made Bengali kheer was waiting for us at her place. All in all we were filled with the sweetness of her hospitality, love and sumptuous food by the end of the day. Before I knew it the day was done and this meeting that I had planned and prayed for came to an end. I left a piece of me in Pondicherry and hope we meet again. Until then I will cherish this trip in 2012 that leaves a sweet aftertaste in my mouth when I just think about it.

I met R after nearly 20 years. She left for another school and that was the last I saw of her. We connected years later through a yahoo group from school. It so happened that she was travelling to India around the same time I was. So we decided to meet at a coffee shop. She came with her son and her sister. It was wonderful to see her after all these years and we chatted like old friends. It’s funny but all the girls who went to school with me share this common bond that ties us together no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done. When we meet or talk on the phone years later, we make a spontaneous and instant connection. It’s like all those years when we thought we were not connected, there was an invisible bond between us!

A few days later I met my dear pal A (of the Bisi Bela Bath fame) who was also in Chennai for a vacation. I almost thought I wouldn’t be able to meet her. She was splitting her time between three houses – her parents’, her in-laws’ and her sister’s. She was my dearest pal in MU and after we got married I moved to the U.S. and she moved to Australia. I kept wishing she would move to the U.S. and years later she did! And she was just 3 hours away from where we were staying. So we met at least 3 to 4 times a year. When I moved to Florida I really missed her. But it wasn’t so bad because we always talked on the phone. She was supposed to go to India last summer but her trip got cancelled. In hindsight I think that happened so I could meet her! It was a rushed meeting at a common friend’s place but it was good to see her after 3 whole years!

My aunt from TVM came down to spend a week with us. We did some fun shopping and did some sight seeing as well. We squeezed in a trip to the Chennai museum too. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum. I marvelled at the architecture of the buildings – something I never really paid attention to as a child. The bronze gallery with it’s ancient idols from the Chola and Pandya dynasty were the best exhibits. I also enjoyed the art gallery with its Raja Ravi Varma paintings. Also  noteworthy are the ghoulish life-size paintings of British governors that seemed to come alive and appeared to be staring right at us.

I met my dear friend J and spent an entire evening with her at her home after enjoying a delicious lunch cooked by her. The kids played together and we laughed and giggled like old times. Giggled till our tummies hurt.

There were some unexpected surprises thrown at me (of the pleasant kind).  The first was S who is a distant cousin whom I’d met years ago at a wedding in Kerala. We hit it off and kept in touch through letters for some years. Now she’s married and is also into writing. She dropped in for lunch one day and it was fun catching up.

My long time friend G from elementary school,  made a sudden trip to India and we both did not know that the other was in Chennai. Call it divine intervention in the form of the isthri lady ( person you give your clothes to be ironed, not to be confused with dry cleaners). She turned up one day and she knew us right from our childhood days and knew we were friends. So she told me G was in Chennai (on the very same street!) and the next day she brought me her phone number. So I met G, her dad, her husband and her kids. God decided to throw in a bonus, so I met Uncle M and Auntie M who kinda moulded my views about vegetarianism many years ago.

When I was with G my mom called saying an old friend A had come over to meet me. She is my brother’s best friend’s sister. And we were phone friends when she lived in NJ. We had a lot in common and I really missed chatting with her when she left to settle in Chennai. What touched me the most was that she left her sick kids in the care of her husband and hurried to come see me!

This time in Chennai I felt like I was wrapped in the love and kindness that everyone extended to me. I didn’t want to leave that comfortable place. So a big thank you to my wonderful friends and family for a wonderful 32 days!

 


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The Chennai Chronicles – Part 1 (Spirit Guides and Signs)

P and I had been meaning to visit our parents in Chennai since the summer of 2012. But visa issues prevented us from making the trip. My cousin G was getting married in December and I really wanted to be there. It was November when our visa papers came through but booking tickets to India in the last minute and in the peak season meant paying a small fortune. So I prayed for a miracle. We got tickets for a decent price but had only a few weeks to pack, shop and get ready for a month long visit to India.

I was apprehensive about this trip. Chennai never felt the same after my grandma passed away and our last trip was so chaotic that I just wanted to get back home to the U.S. What if this trip was the same? My worry made me physically sick. I had a bad cough that wouldn’t go away even after a round of antibiotics. I was weak and listless. I spent the Thanksgiving holiday trying to help my daughter finish her project work and science experiments. My husband was busy shopping. I had no energy to shop but had to drag myself to Kohl’s for the Black Friday sale. I had to get the wedding gifts.

December came by and saw me feeling better physically, but fear was gnawing at my heart. Will I survive a month in Chennai? Will the mosquitoes eat my kids alive? And worst of all how can I stay there without my Dadima?

And then she came to me in a dream. She was sitting up on her bed, in her room. A quiet smile of reassurance playing on her lips. Almost like she was saying – I’m here for you. You have nothing to fear. And next to her sitting on a chair was Doreen Virtue! I have no clue what she was doing in my dream!

The fear melted away and I was confident that this trip was going to be magical from the get go. True enough the rest of my week was filled with rainbows, pennies, number patterns and other good omens.

We had to catch an early flight from Orlando to JFK. We were up at 2.00 a.m. and then headed off to the airport by 3.00. While we were waiting in line to clear the security check, I saw a girl holding a beautiful golden trophy with an angel on it. I was deliriously happy and I knew we’d fly to Chennai on the wings of an angel!

In JFK my son found a penny and right after that we got stuck at the security checkpoint. The TSA wanted to open one of our boxes. I grew apprehensive as I waited with my kids. I quickly started praying and asked my kids to do the same. My son said to me – Ma we just found a penny. I was bemused by my 7-year old’s wisdom. I quickly stopped fretting and turned around to see my husband walking towards us.

When I was in Chennai my brother gave me a book to read – The Small Book of Miracles. It had several short anecdotes about divine intervention and signs. (See http://www.punctuatelife.com/2012/04/18/a-sign-from-above/). So like I said in that post, pennies are a sign from above. But for the first time I realized why. The book said – look at what is written on a penny. It says ‘In God We Trust’. I had not paid attention to that before. But I had always wondered why a penny? Why not a quarter or a dime or a nickel? Now I know why! Next time you find a penny, pick it up with reverence and thank God for it. It is a powerful sign of reassurance and comfort that only your highest good will come through.

I was talking about my grandma to an old friend of Dad’s who was quite close to her. I was telling him how she remembered every birthday and sent cards ahead of time so it would reach us in the U.S. The last card she sent was for Nitin’s birthday before she passed away on February 3rd. The card never reached us. All I have is a tattered envelope with her writing on it and an apology note from the USPS for losing the mail. Little did they know how precious that card was. I wept over this tragic incident for a long time.

It so happened that Nitin’s birthday fell during our stay in Chennai. As happy as I was to spend it with both our families, I missed my grandma and wished she was also part of the celebration. I woke up that morning and stepped into the bathroom to brush my teeth. On the sink I saw a stamp with Indira Gandhi’s face on it. My grandma adored the first female Prime Minister of India and they shared the same name. Later I opened the newspaper to find a whole page on Indira Gandhi and also her picture. It still did not occur to me that my grandma was trying to tell me something.

At the end of the day I was drawn to a pile of books and papers and as I shuffled through them I found a card from my grandmother. It was an anniversary card and she had written on it, congratulating us on the birth of Anjali. I got the message loud and clear. I turned to Nitin and told him that Dadima was wishing him a very happy birthday!

At my cousin’s wedding I spoke to my aunt and she suddenly started talking about guardian angels. She said our loved ones are our guardian angels. Like Dadi was mine. My heart fluttered with joy to hear these words. I knew it was true but to hear it from someone else simply confirmed my beliefs.

Some say it is wrong to call on your loved ones once they have crossed over. But I think in my case my grandma has chosen to be with me and I feel blessed to have her blessings and her guidance. You see love knows no boundaries. This time when I left Chennai, a piece of me stayed behind.

More about my Chennai trip in Part 2. Happy 2013 everyone.