My father just celebrated a milestone birthday. On March 1st he turned 70. Ten years ago I had flown down from Boston with hopes of celebrating my grandma’s 80th birthday and my Dad’s 60th birthday back to back. But that was not to be, my grandma passed away a day shy of her 80th birthday and her cake didn’t get any candles and was never cut. We couldn’t celebrate my Dad’s birthday in a big way. It was just a quiet lunch with immediate family and one close friend from his Monfort school days.
I had planned to go home for Papa’s 70th birthday. I hadn’t been home since we moved back from India after living there for a year. Two and a half years. I was so ready to go home to my parents. I ended up going alone because the kids had school and couldn’t take off for two weeks.
I took a day off from work to go shopping for gifts. After several hours spent wandering around the mall and its menagerie of shops, I still couldn’t find one gift befitting the occasion. So I settled for several smaller gifts. Books, a t-shirt that said “Papa” and a stash of letters addressed to “My Incredible Dad.” You see he is always asking me to write letters and I can never find time to sit down and write to him except when I’m waiting at airports to board a flight.
When I landed in Chennai, the city gave me its usual stinky welcome and I was on sensory overload for the next two weeks. The food had an exotic taste to it (although I pretty much cooked the same thing back in the U.S.). The vivid colors, the crowds, the noise engulfed me and so did the love of my parents. With the kids and my brother absent, I was the sole object of their affection! And how I basked in it.
I gave my Dad one gift every day up until his birthday. I baked a chocolate cake for him, that didn’t turn out as well as I wanted it to. (Note to self: Bring high quality cocoa powder from the U.S. next time.) But it was consumed in two days and I’m guessing my parents loved it.
My dear friend N came down from Pondicherry a day before my Dad’s birthday. Since her birthday had just passed we decided to celebrate with a black forest cake. The girl loves Italian, so we walked down to “Little Italy’s” and stuffed ourselves with garlic bread, lasagna, and gnocchi. My Dad treated us to ice cream at Amadova. We ended up eating “Bournvita” flavored ice cream to counter our over indulgence but ended up too stuffed for our own good. Suffice to say the walk back home was surprisingly long and hard.
On March 1st I gave my Dad the stash of letters, an Origami card from his granddaughter, and a card and some NC chocolates from my friend at work. My Dad’s friend from his school days (the same one who came down to celebrate his 60th birthday) showed up with a humungous chocolate cake and other gifts. My mom and I made puris and potatoes (my Dad’s favorite), curd rice, grated carrots, paneer curry, fried mushrooms, and fried rice for lunch. N left for Pondicherry after lunch.
In the evening, we put two candles (7 and 0) on the cake and had my Dad cut it. We all took turns feeding him cake. His friend, ever playful, tried to put cake all over Papa’s face but only succeeded in smearing some on his cheek. His nephew came over to pick him up later that evening. I have to say that some friends are one in a million and once you find a friend like that you hold onto them for rest of your life. And Uncle V is definitely such a friend. Even my friend N, who reads people like she’s a psychic, could tell he is special.
Next day, it was my turn to be graced by a visit from my friend from school. J and I ended up giggling like school girls and then she took me out to have some Indo-Chinese fare with her lovely daughters. I stuffed myself with chop suey, gobi Manchurian, chilli mushroom and fried rice. The girls insisted on ordering fried ice cream – a desert I had heard of but had never sampled. The verdict? I loved it and would definitely order it again.
After a couple of days my aunt flew down from Mumbai. Papa and I rode the metro rail to receive her at the airport. I have to say the station and the trains were cleaner than the New York metro. It was not crowded and shined like new. The white straps hanging from the top of the train to my great surprise weren’t grimy or grey.
The next morning my aunt and uncle came down from Kerala. My parents had bought sarees for all of us and we went shopping for matching blouses that evening. Again you can spend hours in saree shops looking at all the lovely weaves, hues, and designs. But we had rush back home and pack for our big trip the next day.
After packing way too much food (which we didn’t end up eating) we left early next morning for Thirukadaiyur, a temple town famous for celebrating 60th, 70th, 75th, and 80th birthdays. Six hours and many kilometers later we reached there safely, thanks to a driver who didn’t feel the need to race against time. After resting for a bit, we proceeded to the temple for the 1st set of poojas. (Look out for my next blog post on the story behind the temple.)
My dad and mom exchanged garlands while the nadaswaram and drums played and escorted them to the place where the priests were waiting for us. Sixteen homams had to be done and some of them were done that evening. The next day we were back at the temple at 8.00 a.m. where my parents garlanded each other again to the accompaniment of the drums and nadaswaram as is the custom at Hindu weddings. After a few more poojas and homams we proceeded to pour 16 pots of water on them. My mom shivered as the cold water hit her. After they changed into dry clothes, they garlanded each other again and we all sought their blessings. The very same day we returned back to Chennai and the next day I had to return back to the U.S. My whirlwind trip had come to an end.
Now that I’m back, the whole trip is like a blur. But I remember my mom’s soft idlis and sambar, my dad rubbing tiger balm on my swollen feet, my aunt letting me sleep on her lap when we were driving back to Chennai, my other aunt stitching a blouse for my daughter, and my uncle packing idols of Ganesha for me and staying up with me when I couldn’t sleep due to jet lag. I remember the unconditional love that only parents can give you and the sweet embrace of my friends. I will cherish this trip for years to come and I hope and pray that I get to spend many such precious moments with my parents and my extended family and friends.