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Ganga, My Third Grandma – Guest Blog by Dinesh Damodaran

They say you can choose your friends but not your family. It is also normal to have two grandmas. In my case both are exceptions. I have a third grandma who isn’t related by blood but chose us as her family. Her name is Thankam or as my sister fondly christened her Ganga (alluding to the pure and spiritual nature of the holy river Ganges). Ganga has had a tough life. Her father a wealthy and successful trader died when she was young. He was cheated by his business partner when he was away on a pilgrimage. The shock and betrayal induced a heart attack and he died. She was one of the three daughters left with the mother who naturally struggled to care for all of them. Ganga’s mother approached my great-grandmother and asked her to take her in. So as a young teenager she joined the Parakkal household as a companion to my grandmother. They formed a strong and life-long bond. My grandparents got married and my father was born a year later. They had to leave for the UK for my grandfather to pursue his higher studies in oil and gas engineering. They had to leave my one-year old father behind. Ganga and my great grandparents took care of my father and raised him till he was 5. She was my dad’s nanny or even mother by proxy. They developed a strong bond too. She was around when my sister and I were born and she was around when my sister’s first child (my niece) was born too. She could stop my niece from crying in a few seconds just by holding her.
My grandfather’s job meant he was stationed at all the major oil refineries in India. Wherever my grandmother went she followed. She chose to remain a spinster so she could stay with my grandmother. She was an excellent cook and had the knack to reverse engineer any dish by simply tasting it. She also had a great memory and could remember the special dietary needs and favorite dishes of just about any guest who graced the Damodaran residence. So much so that even decades later an old friend or colleague dropping in to see my grandmother would be asked to stay for a meal and their favorite dish from yesteryear would be served. Her memory and hospitality was remarkable. As kids we used to visit my grandma’s on Saturdays. And she would always cook one of her signature chicken, fish or mutton dishes. I always looked forward to the Saturday lunch and just thinking about some of her dishes still makes my mouth water.
She has made untold sacrifices for us. When my dad was struggling to make money to buy our apartment she sold her jewelry and broke out her life savings to help. All unconditionally, just to see us all happy. She continued to live with my grandmother until age caught up with both of them and she decided it was best that she go her own way. My grandmother died a few years later. And Ganga continued to live by herself in a town not far from where she was born. But as she grew older her declining health made it difficult for her to take care of herself. My father brought her back to Chennai to live with him in the house she spent most of her life with my grandma. It wasn’t the same for Ganga without my grandma around. And since we never let her do any work around the house she got bored quite soon. She asked my dad to take her back to her hometown but my dad told her she wasn’t in any position to live by herself. So it was decided she would stay in an old folks home. The picture you see is from my visit to the home.
They say happiness is good health and bad memory. It is something I believe in when we have a memory filter to weed out the bad and retain the good memories. But it’s heartbreaking when your memories of your time with a person is intact but the other person’s isn’t. Ganga has developed dementia and seems to have forgotten much of the hardships and struggles she faced for most of her life: a good thing most people would say, but in doing so she has also forgotten all the good times that came with it namely the family she adopted as her own. I spent close to two hours with her. She seemed to recognize me then proceeded to talk about my father but failed to recognize I was his son. She couldn’t remember my sister getting married and cradling her first born in her arms, my grandmother’s passing and more sadly even her own mother’s who she complained never visited her even once at the old folks home. But there are still traces of the old Ganga in there. Her natural instinct was to make me some tea and dosas (rice pancakes) in her room even though there is no kitchen or stove there. These are the memories of my third grandma that I will forever cherish and hold as long as my brain permits. Forever grateful for you dear Ganga for touching our lives and for your unconditional love and support.


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A Slice of Paradise

Ten days after I landed in Chennai, my parents and I packed ourselves into a car early one Monday morning and started off for Rajapalayam. My dad wanted to fly to Madurai and then drive from there to our destination. I was the one who insisted on doing a road trip so we could spend “quality time” together. Soon it became apparent to me that this was a bad idea. One, the roads are not as great as in the U.S. Two, the traffic. Three, nobody obeys traffic rules! But I was in for a pleasant surprise. Once we escaped the city limits and hit the highway, the roads were pretty darn good. We had to pay hefty tolls along the way but it was well worth it. Leaving the city meant leaving behind the traffic as well. Our driver was a dare devil with a need for speed. If the speedometer wasn’t touching 100, our man was not happy and he insisted on leaving the slow pokes behind by overtaking them whenever he could.

As we traveled further south and away from Chennai, we passed through verdant paddy fields glistening in the afternoon sun with field hands doubled over tending to the crops. The roads were lined with trees on either side, in stark contrast to the treeless cities we passed from time to time. We spotted kingfishers, egrets, and pigeons and occasionally a monkey. Rocky hills and scrub forests gave way to lush valleys and forested slopes. The last city we passed was Madurai, where we paid a small fortune in tolls. As we neared Rajapalayam – a town build by the Rajas who migrated from Vijayanagara – paddy fields and distant hills stretched on either side of the potholey roads. I kid you not, every house in this town belongs to a person with the last name Raja and all of them are related! We were headed to one such house to meet my Dad’s school friend from his Monfort days.

I have to tell you that I’ve been meeting Uncle V and others in his extended family for years and they are the kindest, generous, and most gracious people I have ever had the fortune of meeting. And the most impeccable hosts ever. They say you can tell a person’s character by observing how they treat less fortunate people. Uncle V showers the very same love and care to the house help and drivers as he does for his family and friends. He makes sure they are well fed and rested and medical issues are addressed promptly. Did I mention Uncle V was an ophthalmologist? Someone who built a hospital in rural Tamilnadu and performed free surgeries for the poor.

After tucking into idlis and dosas for dinner we called it a night. I woke up super early (thank you jet lag!) and it was so quiet and peaceful that my morning meditation was easy to slip into. I actually heard birds chirping in the morning. I wanted to explore the area in the early morning light, so uncle dropped my mom and me at the polytechnic college where all the morning walkers were making their rounds, quietly staring at us outsiders. The campus is beautiful and it was immediately evident that whoever did the landscaping had put a lot of thought and effort into it. On our way back we got an unobstructed view of the sunrise. Something I hadn’t seen after I came to Chennai. The lovely Sanjeevi hills served as a backdrop to the field where several groups practiced cricket and a handful of men were running or doing exercises.

Later I asked uncle about the hills and he told me they were named after the Sanjeevani herbs that Hanuman carried from the Himalayas to save Lakshman’s life in the battlefield. The monkey god spilled the herbs along the way as he was flying by and some of it landed in these hills and hence the name. This was no surprise to me. The very air in this place was healing. Peacocks roamed the streets freely.  Exotic birds such as the paradise fly catcher have been sighted often in this area. Even uncle fed peahens and doves in his backyard. It was apparent that there was a deep reverence for all life in this town.

And thanks to the flourishing flora, I saw butterflies everywhere. If you have been reading my blogs for sometime, you know how fixated I am on butterflies. They just added to my sense of rapture in this little place that was so close to paradise. My brother joined us later that morning and we all spent a good part of the day catching up on happenings in each others’ lives and reminiscing the past. What joy it is to be in such company and in such heavenly surroundings!

We met uncle’s brother and his wife briefly and also Uncle A and the lovely Aunty S who despite travel plans found the time to make a casserole and some sumptuous sambar for us. She even packed some idli/dosa batter for the next day.

The next day we continued down south towards Trivandrum to visit my aunt (mom’s sister) and uncle. The roads were nothing like the ones in TN and made hair pin bends and sharp turns through the Western Ghats, which slowed us down considerably. We did make it in time for lunch (more like an elaborate feast) that my dear Valliamma had spread out for us. She loves all of us kids like her very own and is always around every time I come down from the U.S. This is the first time I’m visiting her after I got married. So both my aunt and uncle were over the moon with joy.

Dinesh left the same night for Palakkad and we stayed on till the next morning. Valliachan, my uncle, took me for a ride in his scooter early that day. Rain or shine, fever or wheezing, he has to go to the temple every morning. That day we went to his favorite Ganesha temple. Valliachan is 74 but drives around like he did in his youth. I had to apply hand brakes on his shoulders to slow him down and I almost fell backwards when he accelerated suddenly! It was exhilarating to feel the cool morning air on my face as we whizzed by narrow streets and smoking pyres at every street corner. Trivandrum is not the clean city it used to be back in the day. However, the water tastes like honey and just a shower in that water is equivalent to a spa treatment.

Before we even got there it was time to say goodbye. I promised them I’ll be back soon for a longer stay and we started our long journey back to Chennai. We had to get back the next day as Dinesh would be back from Palakkad.

Look out for the next blog. It is a guest blog by Dinesh about his trip to Palakkad.


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30 Days of Gratitude (2019)

I’ve been doing this for three years now and feel like gratitude is one of the best practices you can incorporate in your life. And not just say the words but feel it deeply in your heart. Here’s what I am thankful for this year.

Day 1
I am thankful for being alive. Several incidents over the past few months have reminded me to not take a single breath for granted.

Day 2
So so thankful for my dad and infinitely grateful that he could visit me after all these years. Had him all to myself for a whole month. Love you Papa and here’s to spending more time together. Blessed to have a wonderful dad like you.

Day 3
I am thankful for my mom who has worked hard all her life juggling teaching and prepping meals for us, supporting us, and always praying for our highest good. We may not always have the same taste or agree on things but I still love you.

Day 4
Today I’m grateful for energy healing. It’s something I learned when I was 16 but it has definitely shaped my life over the past few decades. Thank you God for healing me and others and for helping me be an instrument of your healing. Humbled by all the experiences I have had and for all of you who have trusted me to help you in your healing journey.

Day 5
Thank you for the music and the songs I’m singing and thanks for all the joy it’s bringing. Love that song by Abba! The power of good music is underrated. It can lift the cloud of sorrow and transport you to realms of bliss. Thankful for the ability to enjoy music from different genres and to be moved by it to tears sometimes.

Day 6
Today I am thankful for my beautiful aunt, Sridevi Chitta. She has survived several storms in her life and hasn’t let it dampen her spirits. She always finds a reason to smile and when we all get together we end up giggling endlessly. Thank you Chitta for being you and for showing me how to be a strong and independent woman. Love you.

Day 7
I’m thankful for my Valliamma, Raji Nair who has been like a second mother to me. Always there, always caring, and always praying for all the kids and grand kids. A talented tailor, she has made so many lovely outfits for my daughter and me. Thank you for always believing in my healing abilities and for being so receptive to it. Love you lots.

Day 8
Thankful for my aunt/chitta, Uma Singh for her sweet, generous nature and her ability to be soft yet strong, firm yet loving, and for always indulging me when I was a child. Love you Chitta and so grateful for you.

Day 9
Today I’m thankful for my brother Dinesh Damodran. Annoying as we may be to each other we’ve always got each others backs. Thankful he could visit me in July. Cherish the memories we made together. Also made me realize life is too short and we need to cherish our loved ones. I love you Dini but no bhindi fry for you next time.

Day 10
I am grateful for the kindness of Mike Kodumudi, my Dad’s friend from his MCC days and his friend Kannan Kutty, Vijaya, and Jay when we were visiting DC. We hadn’t met them before but they opened their homes and hearts to us and made sure we were well fed and well taken care of. Got treated like VIPs. Thank you so much for your hospitality. Cannot express my gratitude in words. God bless all of you!

Day 11
Thankful for you Dadima. I know you help me and guide me in mysterious ways. Thank you for your undying love for me that has no beginning and no end. Blessed to have known you and loved you. Miss you and will always love you.

Day 12
Today I am thankful for my dear Dr. Chacko who yanked me from the jaws of death and revived my lifeless body and who was my pediatrician for several years. And for being the sweet, caring, loving human being you always were. I love you and miss you. But I’m sure you are shining your light from up above.

Day 13
Thankful for Ganga who is like a second grandmother to me. Who took care of me for years and cooked delicious meals, packed lunches, and waited at the gate for me on days that I showed up late. Thank you for all the love you showered on me. Love you. God bless you and keep you strong.

Day 14
Happy Children’s Day for everyone celebrating in India. I am thankful for my children, Anjali and Nitin. You taught me what it is to love unconditionally, especially now that you are teenagers! But I know you are figuring out your way as you grow into the incredible human beings you are destined to be. Remember to be kind and loving and to build relationships. Everything else is fluff. Love you my babies. God bless you always!

Day 15
Thankful for my brother Rohit. He is my little brother but has always been so protective of me. I remember the fun times we had together in Vaikkom and also in Chennai. I wish we lived closer and could just laugh and laugh at totally nonsensical things all day long. Love you Rohit and wish you the very best always.

Day 16
Family is not just the one you are born into. Today I am thankful for my soul sister, Namami, who has been by my side through some rough times, praying for me and consoling me when I needed it the most. You are one in a million and I’m blessed to have you in my life. Thank you for coming down and spending time with me earlier this year. Love you and wish you the very best always! Here’s to spending more time with you.

Day 17
Today I’m thankful for all the challenging people in my life who have tried to dim my light. If it were not for your concerted efforts I would not be here doing what I am doing with renewed vigor. Like the phoenix I will rise from the ashes. You messed with the wrong girl. I release you and hope you find peace.

Day 18
Today I’m thankful for my friends from school, college, work and Facebook who have been there for me and cheered me on, prayed for me when I didn’t know who to turn to, and liked, shared posts, and loved me in innumerable ways. Thank you and I love you all.

Day 19
I am thankful for finally being connected to fellow healers who get me and where I am coming from and give freely of their advice and healing especially when I most need it. It feels good to be connected with other givers…finally! Thank you for all that you do.

Day 20
I am thankful for financial security and abundance that allows me to give freely of my time, energy, and healing. I am supported in all ways by the universe and for that I am infinitely grateful.

Day 21
Thankful for a safe sacred space that is nurturing and healing surrounded by high-vibe people and soul family. And so it is.

Day 22
Thankful for the gift of sensitivity and the ability to feel so deeply and completely every emotion. It’s a beautiful thing.

Day 23
I’m thankful for good health, without which one cannot enjoy any of the other blessings in life. And I’m thankful for the knowledge that my body can heal itself. Now if I can just get everyone else to believe that!

Day 24
Thank you for the gift of writing and the healing it brings to me and others. It is truly a blessing to be able to share it with the world and for that I am infinitely grateful! Thank you to all my beautiful readers and cheerleaders for your constant support and encouragement. Blessed beyond words to have you in my life!

Day 25
Thank you for my new and wonderful job that uses all my talents, is rewarding, engaging, and filled with supportive people who enjoy working with me.

Day 26
Thankful for crisp fall evenings, vivid sunsets, and multi-hued trees gearing up for winter. Thankful for the four seasons and the changes they bring.

Day 27
Today I’m grateful for my cousins. The ones I grew up with, had sleepovers and shared so much with. Thankful that I got to connect with two of them over the past year. Love you all and here’s to spending more time together.

Day 28
Thankful for the simple pleasures of life. Apple pie baking in the oven, cooking with my daughter and some good food on our table today. Infinitely blessed. Sending you all Thanksgiving blessings and love.

Day 29
Thankful for the blessings that are on their way to me. Blessed beyond words. Sending blessings to all of you. Stay grateful always!

Day 30
Thankful for pets that have over the years loved me unconditionally. The world and my life was better because of them.


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A Tribute to Dr. Chacko

The hands that whisked me out of the jaws of death when I was a wee baby lie lifeless in another part of the world. I never tire of telling the tale of the day I was born and nor did she. For it is truly a miracle that I lived to write these words. Let’s go back in time to the year 1978. On July 19th of that year a bonny baby girl was born in Lady Wellington Hospital, Madras to Malli and Mathew. She was the granddaughter of Dr. Rachel Chacko an esteemed pediatrician practicing in Madras. Two days later, my mother went into labor and was admitted at the same hospital. She was scheduled to have a normal delivery but upon examination the ob-gyn realized that the baby (me) hadn’t turned and the head was not facing the birth canal. She had mistaken my butt for my head in the last examination and thought everything was normal. Remember this was before ultrasounds were part of regular prenatal care.

As my mom got ready to push, the doctor realized that my feet were coming out and not my head. It was too late to do a C-section and they ended up yanking me out of my mother’s womb. I had already started breathing and had taken a lot of amniotic fluid into my lungs. My hips did not slide out gracefully and got dislocated when the doctor tried to pull me out. They succeeded but I wasn’t breathing when I was born. The ob-gyn panicked and then remembered that Dr. Chacko was in the hospital attending to her granddaughter. She called her in and placed my small lifeless body in her hands after pumping out my lungs. She breathed life back into me and probably pleaded with God to give me a chance. There was no telling if I would survive and even if I did only time would tell if I had suffered any brain damage during those precious moments after birth when I wasn’t breathing. Whether I would ever walk was another question that no one wanted to address. My hip was plastered for over a month. All that mattered now was that I was alive  by the grace of God and one wonderful lady who didn’t want to give up on me. Also losing another child would have devastated my parents. Their first born baby, a girl, had a hole in her heart and passed away after 27 days.

Dr. Chacko was my pediatrician during this ordeal. Never once did she confess her worst fears to my parents. She prayed for me every time I visited her. She prayed and was thankful for every developmental milestone I crossed. When I walked, she was over the moon with joy. When I talked she couldn’t hide her mirth and relief. I loved going to see her because she always treated me like royalty or like some miracle of nature.

Years later when I no longer consulted her, my parents used to take me to visit her every now and then. She stopped seeing patients but continued to be very active in her church and socially. She was a wonderful friend and companion to many in her circle who sought her wise counsel and benefitted from the faith and grace that always exuded from her. She split her time between Vellore, Bangalore, and Chennai, with her daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. She always spoke highly of my friend and her granddaughter S, who she was very proud of. I share a lifelong friendship with S who with the timing of her birth, in a way saved my life as well. 

In her later years she was plagued by many ailments but that did nothing to dim her spirit. As her body shrunk her spirit only became brighter and stronger. She was always warm and welcoming, with a twinkle in her eye and a smile lighting up her face. When I went to meet her with my children she still treated me like a girl, fussing over my health and complimenting my children at the same time! As a doctor I’m sure she has touched numerous lives but she has touched many more lives by just being an incredibly generous and compassionate human being.

A few years ago when I was going through an incredibly tough phase in my life, I went to visit her with my parents. In her incomparable way, she sensed something was amiss just by looking at me. She held my hand and inquired about my health and eating habits while I sat next to her for nearly an hour. Was she silently praying for me like she always did? I’m certain she was. Because when I left, I had this incredible sense of peace that I hadn’t felt for months. Soon after that visit I left for the U.S. and her health deteriorated even more over the course of a few months.

In March 2019 I went to visit her. She was recovering after a surgery that removed part of her tongue. Although she looked very frail, her memory was sharp. She recognized me, smiled and talked to me. I couldn’t understand most of what she said but I smiled and held her hand for a while, remembering all the times she had prayed and willed me to have good health and a good life. Here lay the woman I owed my life to and yet I could do nothing but hold her hand and pray that her last moments be peaceful and filled with love and loved ones around. Seven months later she passed away after a brief illness.

I can only imagine what her family is going through. She was a force to reckon with – strong, independent, a pillar of support for her whole family, and admired by her friends and colleagues. The world will be a dimmer place without her light but I’m sure she will continue to shine on from up above.

S and I were both blessed with grandmothers who were epitomes of strength, resilience, faith, and dynamism. We grew up in the shadow of their magnificence and always carry a part of them in us.

When adversity strikes I always look to my grandma’s life for answers and I’m sure S will also find her Ammachi’s gentle guidance helping her navigate all the ups and downs in her life. Grandmas never leave our side even when they have left this world. How could they? They promised to love us forever.

 

 


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Energy Healing 101

For most people the body is a solid tangible entity and the core reality of their existence. They forget that everything in this universe and beyond is energy and besides what is visible to the naked eye is a whole other subtle world that influences our reality. Without this energy or life force (chi or prana in eastern traditions) the body would simply be a corpse.

Our thoughts, emotions, and feelings emit a frequency, an energy if you will, that is palpable if you are discerning. Everyone is aware of this at some deep level but often dismisses it for things perceived by the senses. Regular folk who walk on sites that used to be concentration camps or battlefields can sense the pain, fear, and despair because these places are drenched in those energies. On the flip side when people visit a monastery, meditation center or place of worship they can feel the peace and almost always come back feeling good.

Think about it. Some places or people always make you feel peaceful and calm while others trigger unpleasant emotions. So what is it you are picking up on? Surely not the external appearance of things! Someone could be smiling at you and quietly cursing you in their head and somehow you know. You are picking up on their energy.

Apart from the physical body we all have an energy body that is greatly influenced by the food we eat, our predominant emotions and thoughts, all of which are different forms of energy. This energy influences our physiology and as a result our body. This is probably old news. Doctors have been talking about the mind-body connection for several years now. But what is interesting is that more and more doctors and hospitals are offering alternative and energy healing therapies in addition to regular treatment options.

My introduction to energy medicine came at a young age. A Reiki Master came to my college and gave a talk on energy healing and I was instantly drawn to it. I did my Reiki Level 1 with my Reiki Master, Nirupama Prasad. After that I was doing hands-on healing for family and friends and also started meditating on a regular basis. I ended up doing Reiki Level 2 as well, which allowed me to do distant healing. I sent Reiki to my babies when I was pregnant and both my kids were born healthy and through normal delivery. I have this on again and off again relationship with Reiki for several years now. But a few years ago I noticed a great surge of energy every time I did Reiki. My daughter started believing in Reiki after I got Lucky, our cat, to sit on my lap while I did Reiki. She closed her eyes, became very still and seemed to enjoy it. As a matter of fact, animals and plants respond very well to Reiki.

So what is Reiki? It is cosmic or divine energy (prana or chi) that is all around us. Reiki healers can channel this energy through their body and out of their hands to the patient. They don’t draw their own energy. This is important to note because some people worry that the Reiki healer’s energy will get depleted because they are sharing it with others. Contrary to this notion, healers feel energized after a Reiki session. They allow the divine energy to flow through them and fill them up before channeling it to the patient.

Reiki treatments are very effective for aches and pains. After a couple of treatments, the pain subsides or completely disappears. The patient also feels relaxed, sleeps better, and is emotionally balanced after a session. There are stories out there about Reiki curing cancer, reversing hearing loss,  and healing bones. I did Reiki for A when she broke her elbow. She reminded me that the cast came off two weeks before it was supposed to. The orthopedic surgeon was surprised and asked us if she had eaten a lot of cheese!

Over the years I’ve been wary of openly proclaiming the miraculous powers of Reiki or energy healing. Many thought I was weird, out there, cray cray, cuckoo for talking about it. But these days Reiki has become more mainstream and less “out there” and “alternative”. There are doctors in Duke Hospital who are also Reiki healers. Duke even offers Reiki Level 1 and 2 as part of their integrative medicine initiative.

I was surprised the other day when “Saving Hope” a medical drama series that explores near death experiences introduced a Reiki healer talking about the heart chakra of a comatose patient. Usually the media stereotype for spiritual or new age folk is a blundering fool who talks funny and can’t fit in with regular folk who constantly poke fun at their weird rituals. So it was refreshing to see that the surgeon in this serial wanted to give Reiki a shot to save her patient.

Alternative medicine (acupressure, acupuncture, Reiki, naturopathy, homeopathy, etc.) is gaining more acceptance. People are beginning to wake up to the fact that there is more to life than just this body and material acceptance. Also they are tired of popping pills and dealing with side effects. While alternative medicine cannot completely replace Western medicine, it can surely hasten the healing and reduce side effects. And more and more doctors and patients are becoming aware of this.

My aunt can’t pop pills when she is in pain since she is allergic to several pain killers. So I find myself doing Reiki for her whenever she is dealing with pain. These days she refuses to go see a doctor and insists that Reiki will heal her.

After the accident, I plunged into Reiki and meditation with renewed vigor. A month ago I was a nervous wreck – weepy, emotional, withdrawn, and barely able to function. After a month of Reiki and meditation, I feel more balanced, positive, and in control. I drove again for the first time after the accident and wasn’t crippled by fear or anxiety. It’s a miracle! I never thought I’d get out of it. I thought my old fear of driving would possess me, now that it had some external validation.

I decided to offer Reiki to people outside of my immediate circle because I have witnessed its immense power and miraculous results. If you are still skeptical, give it a shot. You’ll be surprised at the results. I always am!

If you have any questions or need more information please share them in the comments section and I will be more than happy to go deeper into this subject.

A Month Together After Seven Years

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After my brother moved to Sweden to pursue his Masters in 2012, I haven’t met him. Our trips to India never coincided. Often we’d miss each other by just a couple of weeks. And for some reason we never got to visit each other either. That changed when DD came to  Las Vegas on a business trip. He figured he might as well apply for a tourist visa while getting his business visa. He decided to come visit me in July (the hottest month in the U.S.) so he could celebrate my birthday with me. My parents were also supposed to visit but their visa interview was scheduled to be on my birthday!

I took every Friday off from work so we could do weekend trips together. Our first trip was to Asheville in Western NC. I had never been there myself, so it was a welcome surprise. Nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and about 10 degrees cooler than Raleigh, this place is steeped in natural beauty and a very “hippie” vibe as DD put it. Yoga studios, crystal shops, vegan restaurants, and art galleries galore dotted the downtown scene.

We strolled around Grovewood Village which boasts of an art gallery, an antique car museum, and art garden with artsy windmills and bears, rabbits, and fish made from wood, metal, and ceramic. The textile history museum had rare artifacts from when the city was a booming hub for the textile industry. Hand-spun material that originated here ended up as dress suits won by some first ladies.

After lunch we headed to the arboretum to cool off. We walked one of its numerous interconnected trails and encountered others like us who were trying to escape the long weekend Fourth of July rush. Sitting on a bench, we soaked in the light filtering through the canopy while listening to a stream gurgle by. We skipped over some rocks to touch the cool water glistening and dancing in the sunlight. It was just what my soul was yearning for.

Later that evening we drove to Lake Junalusca to watch the fireworks. It was a rainy evening but by dusk the clouds cleared as we stood overlooking the serene lake with a lone boat drifting along its perimeter. As it got darker, a smaller firework show started right before our eyes. Fireflies! Dozens or more of them in the bushes surrounding the lake were putting on a show. The actual fireworks were on the other side of the lake and obscured by some trees. But it was too late to move so we just enjoyed them from afar.

Next morning we headed to the Folk Art Museum with its corn husk dolls, horse-hair pots, and other unique pieces of art that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. It helped that my brother also enjoyed art and wasn’t in a big rush to leave as I lingered over each piece. After a hearty lunch at Mela, we headed to the Thomas Wolfe Museum and did a tour of the author’s childhood home which interestingly enough was also a boarding house run by his mother. It was trip back in time to when boarding houses didn’t face much competition from hotels and doctors prescribed fresh mountain air to cure tuberculosis and other maladies.

The characters in his book, “Look Homeward Angel,” were all poorly-disguised real-life characters. Fearing confrontation with family and friends for baring their secrets and follies, Wolfe never visited Asheville for eight years after the book was published. But when he did return as a famous author he was well received. Ironically, he died at a young age from complications due to tuberculosis. Rumor has it that his mother did not turn away sick people from the boarding house. Our tour guide brought all these characters to life and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Before heading back home the next day, we stopped at the Swannanoa Valley Museum which was basically a firehouse converted into a museum. Beacon Blankets was the town’s bread and butter until it closed down in 2002. The museum followed the history of this company which was so closely tied to the history and economy of the town. On the 2nd floor were artifacts like the first automatic voting machine, segregated water fountains, and old switchboards for telephones, also stories from the Prohibition era about moonshiners, bootleggers, and their run in with the law.

It was with a heavy heart that I drove back to Raleigh, leaving behind the misty mountain tops and chilled-back vibe of Asheville. But I’m certain I’ll go back for more. I don’t know if the mountain air is a panacea for serious maladies but I’m pretty damn sure it can cure souls grown dreary with city life.

On Sunday we had lunch with our cousin and his wife, one of many reunions that would unfold during DDs month-long visit. On Tuesday we went to a music park to watch the Tedeschi Trucks, with Derek who was supposedly a wizard with a guitar. DD was explaining the whole slide guitar concept which was completely alien to me. I had never heard of this band or listened to their music before, but was happy to accompany DD as long as it wasn’t rap or heavy metal (DDs fave genres when he was a teen and used to blast his music till the whole apartment vibrated!)

I have to say that this Derek guy delivered on his promise. His guitar prowess was evident and his skill and technique were flawless. He even played some Hindustani tunes on his guitar and I was impressed. The opening acts were also fairly decent and I could finally check off rock concerts on my bucket list thanks to DD (the only concerts I had been to in the past were school concerts and Carnatic music concerts!)

The rest of the week rolled by and on Thursday we made our way to Washington DC. I had been there last summer so I knew the drill. We did all the memorials – Lincoln, Roosevelt, MLK, World War II, White House, and Capitol Hill in sweltering 90 degree weather. By the time we reached Capitol Hill we didn’t have an ounce of strength to walk up to the building and take pictures. We stood near and gate, captured a few shots and left!

The highlight of the trip was meeting our cousin and aunt after several decades. We laughed and talked and reminisced the old times over some good Chinese food. I also loved the Air bnb we stayed in, tucked away in a quiet street in Falls Church. The owner had a cat, that we both took turns feeding and letting in and out of the house. When she got wet in the rain, DD ran after her with a paper towel to dry her off, only to find out later that she was a Turkish Van and loved water!

The next day I headed back home alone while my brother stayed back to meet some friends from school before heading to NYC to meet old friends from AIESEC. While he was there he met a former client who had made a career out of dog walking. DD spent an afternoon dog walking with him. His pictures with the dogs are pure bliss. You can see the joy filling him and spilling over. I really wish he would get himself a dog!

From NYC he flew to Denver to meet some clients and then explored the city, which he described as his favorite city in the U.S. so far. He got back home just in time for the weekend and we explored the museums in downtown Raleigh and ate a ginormous breakfast at Big Ed’s that serves up Southern fare. DD discovered grits when he was in Asheville and loved it. He was little alarmed to find that all Southern dishes were fried but finally settled for Cajun fried chicken. On Saturday he headed off for a day in Charlotte to see some Arsenal fans/friends. He spotted the assistant coach walking past him and managed to get a selfie with him. He’s always lucky that way. Years ago, DD caught Buddy Guy’s guitar pick when he threw it at the crowd during a concert in Mumbai. And here I can’t even catch a foul ball at a local baseball game!

On my birthday we went to a Tibetan Buddhist center to participate in their morning meditation. After the meditation, they set out some strawberry cake, fruits, coffee, and herbal teas for everyone. We finished off with a South Indian lunch buffet at Tower and headed back home because it was too hot (this was the heat wave weekend across the U.S.) to do anything else but laze indoors.

It’s funny that the two of us are so different and yet so similar. We both love bisi bele bath, salt and vinegar chips, art, animals, and meditation. Of course his idea of meditation is 10-day intense retreats, while I prefer a regular practice in the comfort of my home.

Our last week together flew by and then it was time for him to leave. I made one last meal for him and we sat down to have lunch together. Just the previous night he had made his world famous Zafrani pulao. When we were growing up, I had never seen him cook anything but Maggie noodles. So I was in for a surprise. He took his time, was very particular about the ingredients, and didn’t allow me to rush the process. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t cook every day. But the pulao was perfect. It didn’t stick to the bottom of the pot (which is what happens when I cook rice on the stove top) and it tasted great!

A month flew by and we had so much fun. I just wish we meet more often and don’t have to wait another 7 years to do this again!

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Dancing in the Rain

If you live in North Carolina the only weather forecast you take seriously is a hurricane headed your way. So three days ago when they predicted thunderstorms I headed out for a walk with A and two umbrellas in tow and although the clouds looked menacing they only managed to squeeze out a few drops of rain. So the next day when there was a thunderstorm in the forecast I decided not to skip my walk. This time we only had one umbrella between the two of us (A had misplaced hers). It was already raining when we stepped out but within a few minutes it got really heavy and our sleeves were getting wet because the umbrella was not big enough for the two of us. By the time we reached the mail boxes with a little roof over it we were quite wet. That’s when A suddenly remembered that they interrupted regular programming to alert everyone about a thunderstorm with potentially 60 mph winds.

“Now you tell me,” I scolded her. She just shrugged her shoulders and proceeded to take videos of the rain coming down in buckets and causing little rivulets of water to swiftly make their way to the storm water gutters. My initial plan was to wait it out but I wasn’t sure when this storm would pass and we were losing daylight. So we decided to head back home. At this point the umbrella was useless and we were pretty much drenched by the time we got home.

Getting wet in the rain reminded me of simpler times in Madras, the rain-starved city and its people. Of course weather forecasts weren’t that accurate and schools didn’t send emails and text alerts to let you know they were closed. So, many of us would brave the rain and reach school only to find out that school was closed. That meant no classes but the gates would be open and our classrooms too. We’d take off our wet socks and shoes, and untie our braids. Uninhibited and unsupervised, we’d play games, sing, and make the black board our easel. It was more fun that sitting at home and watching TV.

I remember a time when we lived in a rented house and the land lady wouldn’t supply us with water in our pipes and we had to go fill water at a hand pump in her backyard. We had access to the terrace because we lived upstairs and one day when it rained, my mother ran up to the terrace and stood in the rain. Just taking in the abundance of water falling from the skies. When she emerged, rain-soaked and glorious, she was beaming. What the land lady withheld from us, the heavens gave freely and there was some deep relief in knowing that.

My friend G and I used to go for evening walks and window shopping in the galleries on KNK Road. But by far the most enjoyable walks we had were in the rain. The oppressive heat and the delayed monsoons always made everybody restless. Rain was sweet relief and release. The cool water on our skin was cleansing and healing. The dusty roads gleamed and the puddles reflected the stormy skies. It was pure joy walking in the rain with another soul who enjoyed it as much as I did, giggling and laughing all the way.

Later when life got busy and we went our separate ways, I still got excited when it rained in Madras. I remember running outside my grandma’s house and dancing in the rain, spinning around in circles till I was dizzy. The plants all around me seemed to be equally happy as they glistened in the rain.

I almost forgot how happy I was in the rain. When A got completely soaked and lost her slipper in a puddle she was giggling and so happy. I on the other hand was feeling like an irresponsible parent, dragging my child through potentially dangerous weather. That’s when I remembered, wait a minute, I used to enjoy this! By then we were home but I decided to go dancing in the rain again some time soon because I now know that the rain nourishes my soul.