Punctuate Life

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All I Wanted for Christmas…

My list was long and I was just waiting for the winter break to get started on it. Some things were material and some were more abstract. I wanted to cut and color my hair, get myself a sweater, go on vacation with my family, write a novel, meet up with old friends and relatives we haven’t met in a while. On my last working day before the break, I took off early from work. I didn’t feel good. Sure enough by the time I got home I was coughing and sneezing and totally miserable. The next day I felt worse but by then I had started a course of antibiotics. By Sunday I was a complete and total mess. My tummy hurt, I was coughing and bringing up mucus and I had absolutely no energy to do anything.

The first thing to be crossed off my list was meeting with an old school friend. She and her family were visiting Orlando and we had agreed to meet up on Sunday for dinner. I wasn’t up to it at all and I didn’t want to make her baby and little girl sick and ruin their trip. I crossed off going to the salon as well, when I got back after grocery shopping (we had no food in the refrigerator!) and collapsed on the bed. I didn’t care about the grey’s showing or if I had a matching sweater to wear to work. All I wanted was to be well. All I wanted was some energy to get through the day.

The weekend was gone and I was done with my course of antibiotics. The cough had subsided but the fatigue clung to my body. It took every ounce of strength to get up and fix a meal and after eating I’d go collapse on the bed leaving my husband and kids to clean the dishes and clear the table. On Monday I wanted to blog. I sat on the couch, paper and pen in front of me. I had a couple of topics that had come to me earlier but my brain was in a fog. The virus or whatever it was had sapped every cell in my body of all its strength. Every day I got up praying that I would be better. And I would be. Thinking I was back to normal I’d go about my chores only to find myself totally drained out. Write a novel? Forget about it! I couldn’t come up with a measly sentence for crying out loud!

By Wednesday I was not only physically down but also my upbeat attitude had taken a terrible beating. It hit me finally that without a sound body, everything I did in life would be impossible to do. Every thing that I had taken for granted – healthy vigor, energy, creativity, fun, laughter, work – all of it simply vanished when my health was compromised. It made me realize that good health is the greatest gift without which the rest of life’s blessings cannot be enjoyed. I also came to the humble realization that even though I believed that I was living a healthy life, taking good care of myself and not indulging in risky behavior, I had no power over disease. It could strike any time, out of no where and ravage your body, mind and spirit.

The next day I was almost back to normal. My energy levels were up. But my spirit was shaken. I felt small, mortal and completely vulnerable. I felt sorry for myself. All my plans for the winter break were now just plans that would never take shape. Since we waited for the last minute to plan our trip there were no rental cars available. So we had to be content staying home. My distress levels hit the roof until I realized there were folks out there without power. Folks who had to leave home and spend Christmas in a hotel or a friend’s home. Folks who had to spend Christmas alone because they had no family. Folks who were sick on Christmas day.

I was thankful that I was better on Christmas day and got to meet relatives from New Jersey for a fun-filled dinner. A dear friend called me late in the night, quite unexpectedly, just to lift my spirits.

I am thankful I have power and can stay home, even though a vacation is out of question. I am thankful for my beautiful family, for taking care of me and nursing me back to health. Thankful for friends who called to check on me. So in the end I didn’t get most of the stuff on my list but I did find out that I’m one lucky lady. I already had everything that really mattered. Everything that made the holidays special – family, a warm home and wonderful friends. Without that and my health (which is back to normal) none of the gifts on my list would have given me any joy at all.

I am thankful for the disease that came right around the holidays threatening to ruin it but turned out to be a beautiful lesson and a gift that I now share with you. The most important gifts in life are those that money can’t buy. They don’t come gift wrapped with a big bow on the side. They most certainly cannot be returned, exchanged or regifted. But be sure to cling on to these all year long and especially during the holidays for they make life complete and are a joy to receive. Wishing you good health, a warm home, your beautiful family & friends and lots of joy this holiday season.


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My Gastronomic Adventure – Part 2

Now the U.S. is a culinary jungle all by itself and living here for more than a decade has greatly influenced my cooking. As a young bride I focused on making everyday Indian food which was easy, given that I used to help my mom a lot in the kitchen and knew most of the basic recipes. I love Chinese food and we used to eat out at Chinese restaurants quite frequently. The Chinese food you get in India is usually spiced up and modified to suit the Indian palate. When I came to the U.S. I quickly discovered that most Chinese restaurants were Americanized. I was disappointed and craved Ind0-Chinese food so much that I started making it myself – just the fried rice, noodles and cauliflower Manchurian.

Another type of food that I missed was chaat (Indian snack food or street food). To try and explain what chaat is to someone who has never tasted it is next to impossible. Maybe the closest I can get to describing it is by borrowing a word from Japanese – Umami, which is a 5th taste, a savory taste. Chaat is an explosion of salty, sweet, tangy, spicy and crunchy that takes you to food heaven. So again I had to perfect my paav bhaji, pani puri and bhel puri for whenever the chaat cravings hit me hard.

I love to bake and out here baking is big. So I spent many years trying out different cake and pie recipes and now I have a few perfect ones under my belt. Like banana nut bread, apple pie (thanks to Aunty D’souza – who bakes the most amazing desserts), key lime pie (thanks to Florida) blueberry muffin, almond cake, brownies and chocolate chip cookies.

When you are vegetarian, eating out is such a tedious task. Our go-to places are Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants. My kids simply love Italian food and given a chance they would eat pasta every day. So chef DC did it again and perfected her pasta sauces, ravioli, lasagna, frittata and even home made pizza. The fun part of making pizza is getting the kids involved. They love getting in there and getting messy and I love cooking with them. It reminds me of the time I spent cooking with my mom and also G.

I used to spend many hours watching food network and my favorite show was 30 minute meals with Rachel Ray. She was my idol and I used to race against the clock and try and make Indian food (that typically takes hours to make) in just 30 minutes. The rice cooker and pressure cooker were my best friends and I quickly mastered the art of speedy chopping. So in under an hour I would make one veggie dish, one gravy and rice. I can make a one pot sambar (many traditional cooks frown upon this method) which to me tastes just as good.

Other friends I have made out here have also shared wonderful recipes with me. Most of my neighbors in Boston were from Andhra Pradesh, India and their dishes are very tasty and very different from ours. I learnt how to make mango dal and eggplant curry from them. My good friend and neighbor shared her mushroom biriyani recipe which has been passed on to many friends and is still a favorite at my house. She is a very good cook and we used to make and share vada and payasam during festivals and also try out different recipes and share them. She inspired me to make sweets for Diwali (although the seeds were sown by G’s family and Ganga). So I’ve made Ladoos, Jalebis, Halwas and Kheer. My neighbor S started making murrukkus with me when she was between jobs and I soon found myself in the possession of a murukku press (thanks to my husband), making murukkus from scratch.

My husband likes to cook on occasion and he has whipped up some very good recipes. One of the earliest ones was a veggie sub with grilled green pepper, mushroom, onions and tomatoes and melted cheese. He makes the best rava dosas and dry coconut chutney. These days he is into making plantain chips from scratch – we just finished frying up a batch after slicing them up in our spiffy new mandoline.

So that brings me to last month’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Firstly we don’t eat turkey – me because I’m vegetarian and the rest of my family simply doesn’t like it. So we replaced the turkey with chicken wings – buffalo style. My daughter wanted mashed potatoes and my son wanted lasagna! I replaced the lasagna with mushroom ravioli because it’s a lot easier to make and for dessert we had eggless cake. I’m glad I chose a simple menu because on the day before Thanksgiving I fell sick and I secretly thanked myself for not choosing to make Indian food! I consider myself a die-hard curry eater but no other cuisine involves so much soaking, grinding, marinating, frying, sautéing, mincing and spicing like Indian cuisine. Later that evening the guilt set in and I ended up making eggplant curry.

There is something about food that not only titillates your palate but also warms your heart and soul. When you break bread with someone, share your table or your cooking with someone, an invisible bond is formed – one that lasts for a long time and one that evokes a lot of fond memories of fun, food, family and friends. Here’s to your own culinary adventure…cheers!

 


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My Gastronomic Adventure – Part 1

The other day as I chatted on the phone with my good friend G, with whom I have shared many a happy meal, I was flooded with food memories. Those of you who have seen me or pictures of me, know I have this figure that belies the foodie that I am. And yet food is such a big part of my life and my relationship with people. I guess if you are born in India, food is a big part of your life. We Indians spend a long time prepping, cooking, and enjoying meals.

Right from the womb I imagine every Indian baby floats in amniotic fluid laced with spice. Once out in the world, they take in the exotic aromas wafting through the warm air. Parents can barely wait to get their toddlers accustomed to spices. If you can’t take spice you aren’t fit enough to be Indian. I laugh when I see Indian parents fret and fume when their kids push away plates of spicy curry and ask for mac and cheese.

When I was a kid growing up in India my grandma had an amazing cook, Ganga. Her caramel custard was to die for and she made the best meatball curry (back then I used to eat meat). Fish fry and chicken curry were top notch and her biryani was awesome. Her dosas were crispy and brown and her chutneys always hit the right spot. Her parathas were flaky and soft and her garlic pickle was so famous that my friend M would bug me to bring some to school every day. Well you get the picture – I grew up in the lap of culinary excellence.

My best friend G lived across the street and I was always at her house. Her parents were from Punjab/ Uttar Pradesh and the food they cooked was entirely different from what we ate. I’m drooling here just thinking about Aunty Sharma’s Aloo and Methi paratha, arvi fry and just plain simple dal. I used to hang around all day until dinnertime and then they’d ask me to join them. I’d rush to the table after quickly calling my grandma to tell her I won’t be home for dinner. Dessert was another exotic experience at the Sharma’s. Malpua, ladoo, kheer and doodhi ka halwa to name a few.

At G’s place everyone helped out in the kitchen. At my grandma’s house I was not allowed to do any chores so I really enjoyed cooking and eating together at G’s place. I think my love for cooking started here. I used to bug my Mom to make cakes and puddings and she was most indulgent. Sultana sponge cake and coconut castle puddings were my favorite. She even got a second-hand cooking range (with an oven) – sort of a rarity in India. My brother and I used to invite our friends over and my Mom would cook a feast from scratch. Sometimes I’d test out some dishes on my unsuspecting friends (like baked cauliflower and potato).

My grandma from my Mom’s side lived in Kerala and she was an excellent cook. We visited her every summer (see Summer Escapes in God’s Own Country) and she baked us cardamom cake in her electric oven. She made marvelous shrimp curry and other fresh seafood. Her sambar was out of the world and she even made chocolate for us from her cocoa tree. Her neighbor used to help her make giant vats of mysore pak for us to take home.

In school we shared lunches with our friends and I remember R used to bring the tastiest Rajma (red kidney beans) and rice. When I was in college I was the only one in my group that brought lunch from home. My other friends ate in the mess or ordered food from the canteen. At the university, my dear friend A used to bring the tastiest Bisi Bela Bath. She actually brought two boxes. One for herself and another to share with the rest of us. Years later I wheedled the recipe from her and make my own BBB these days.

G and I decided to fast every Friday when we were in college. Looking back, I think it was crazy for two girls who live, breathe and dream about food to take up fasting. But we did it all the same. We only had tea and biscuits (cookies) in the morning and then drank water for the rest of day. We broke the fast in the evening by having dinner at my place or her place. Ganga and Aunty Sharma would go all out and cook multiple dishes for us poor starved girls. It would be a regular feast that we polished off. We’d end up stuffed, lying on the bed, so happy that we’d end up giggling. Giggling to the point where our tummies hurt. This went on for sixteen weeks and then we stopped because even God has His limits!

Now you all know I moved to the U.S. 11 years ago and the food culture here has influenced me in many ways. But that is a topic for a whole other blog – Part 2 of My Gastronomic Adventure follows…until then like Julia Child says – Bon Appetit.

 

 


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A Heart Full of Gratitude

It is with utmost joy that I write (and now type) this post. A long awaited dream of mine has come true. Roll back to the second post I wrote (The Work Saga –http://www.punctuatelife.com/2012/02/13/the-work-saga/) and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I got a job! A real job! One that pays!

It’s been less than a month but I can’t keep it from the world any longer. No it’s not a writing job. It’s not even a full time job. But it’s just what I need. Part of me was always apprehensive about going to work and leaving the kids in daycare. I’m so used to being there for them when they get back from school that it was inconceivable to me to hand that responsibility to someone else.

Yet part of me craved for a job, for independence and even the companionship of colleagues. This I partially fulfilled by doing volunteer work at the school. The volunteer work (200 something hours spent cutting and gluing, helping with centers, buying supplies) finally paid off and landed me this job.

So at this job, I get to keep the kids with me, the hours work for me and my volunteer work helped me snag this job. I’ll keep you guessing while I go over my long list of things I’m immensely grateful for in my life. It goes without saying that I’m infinitely grateful for this job. I’m blessed to have two little angels for kids. They make each waking day a joy for me. From whiny, cranky, needy babies they have grown to be solid, sound and responsible little kids. I’m in awe of these little wonders that I helped bring into the world.

I’m thankful for an awesome husband who has made my life comfortable and easy. I live an almost stress-free lifestyle thanks to him – he bears the burden of providing for the family, paying the bills, planning for the future. I know he will take care of even the tiniest detail and that we are safe and secure under his wing.

I’m thankful for my family – my parents, brother, in-laws and my adopted Grandma (Ganga). We had the good fortune of celebrating my father-in-law’s 80th birthday with him. Thank you for all your prayers, support and good wishes over the years. A special thank you to my awesome brother who keeps giving me feedback about my blog and doing a lot of PR for me.

I’m thankful for my friends who swoop down to my rescue when family cannot. Without you guys I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Your support and encouragement over the years has built my confidence, has reminded me when I have forgotten who I am and what I am capable of. A special thank you to my bosom friend N for always finding time to comfort me, praying incessantly for me and my family (like her own) and above all for believing in me when I did not believe in myself.

My dear friend S tied the knot this year and I’m so happy for her. When you have a friend you have known from the cradle, you can’t help but want her to be happy and settled (not just money-wise or career-wise but also partner-wise). So I’m thankful that she finally found her soul mate and is starting to live her happily ever after.

I’m thankful that we finally got our green card (this summer) after years of waiting. I’m also very thankful that I got to see fall colors this year after a long time. I’m thankful for good weather out here in Florida (snow is really not my thing). Thankful for food on our table. Thankful for good people in my life. Thankful for every reader (secret ones too) and subscribers. Thankful for my blog. Thankful for my pet fish. Thankful for miles and miles of beaches. Thankful for my little garden and the flowers blooming outside. Thankful for electricity and running water. Thankful for a warm and cozy home. Thankful for Mother Earth. Thankful for sunshine and rain. Thankful for laughter, good health and joy and I wish you all the same. Have a happy Thanksgiving y’all.


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Short Story 2 – Now Hair Now Gone

 

It just had to go. It was thin and long and not even one bit shiny. It was old fashioned and so tough to maintain. Plus it fell in clumps and threatened to all but disappear. She had it all through middle school and high school and the first year of college and that was a long time. Could she do it? She’d been threatening to ever since she could remember but always nothing happened and now when she started her mom would just shrug it off, her dad would feign shock and her brother would say- you don’t have the guts! Pah! Everybody thought she was a baby. Can’t they just quit telling me how to live, how to dress, what to do with my hair, she thought.

So one fine morning she took off with a friend, her long black hair tied back in a ponytail cascading behind her and reaching down to her hips. It swayed and bounced with her all the way to the beauty salon. When Priya entered, she caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror. Her brow was furrowed and her jaws clenched tight. Many older women were getting trims. The stylist’s scissors were clipping away furiously and wisps of hair fell lifelessly to the ground. She turned to the girls and raised her thinly plucked eyebrows as if to ask what they wanted.

“Haircut,” they both said in a chorus.

“ Wait 10 minutes,” she said in broken English.

The girls nodded and moved to a corner and watched while the stylist finished blow-drying and styling a mop of hair. The longer Priya waited the more unsure she was. She turned to her friend Gita.

“Am I doing the right thing?”

Gita gave her a wistful look and said what she had said a hundred times before, “ I don’t know Priya. I hope your folks take it well.”

Priya closed her eyes and thought of her mom. She had spent years oiling, massaging, combing, braiding, washing, drying and most of all loving her daughter’s hair.

“I never had long hair Priya,” she used to say to her, “and I always wanted my daughter’s hair to be long and beautiful.”

Priya swallowed hard but the lump in her throat stayed put. She opened her eyes. The lady with a mop of hair was gone. A young girl was sweeping away the hair around the swivel chair. The stylist emerged from behind a purple curtain and motioned for Priya to sit on the chair. Priya turned to Gita.

“You go first,” she said.

Gita moved towards the chair and sat down slowly and turned it around to face the stylist. The stylist ran her long fingers, tips painted bright pink, through Gita’s hair.

“U- cut please,” Gita said. The stylist nodded. Priya stared at the scissors and the hair flying all around. Before long she was done and Priya crawled into the chair and sat looking at herself in the mirror.

“What you like?,” asked the stylist after a long silence. “Trim?”

Priya woke up from her trance and said, “No. I’d like you to cut it.”

The lady beside her with short henna streaked hair, sat up in her chair.

“Long hair is so lovely. You can do so many things with it. Braid it, put it up, let it down…”

Oh please! Don’t start –Priya wanted to say. What did she know about having long hair for years. The same look through all of your teenage years. So boring. That’s what long hair was. Plain boring. Not one bit stylish.

“How much?,” asked the stylist, holding Priya’s limp hair in her left hand.

“Shoulder length.”

A wave of pain passed over Gita’s face. The henna lady clicked her tongue. The stylist clicked her shears ominously and lifted a bunch of hair. Priya was finding it hard to breathe. Oh just get it over with.

The scissors snipped away and Priya was aware of the hair being severed off from her head and falling to the ground. But she dared not look down. Suddenly this didn’t feel good at all. She always thought she wanted to cut her hair but now as they fell down all around her she was filled with a sense of grief. The stylist worked in bunches and finished cutting all of her hair to shoulder length. As if that wasn’t enough Priya wanted a step cut and also a fringe. The scissor- happy stylist cut away. Priya looked at herself. She didn’t look the same anymore. A tuft of hair hung over her forehead. The rest fell over her shoulders. Did she look good? Well, she had to get used to the ‘new look’. The young girl with the broom appeared. Priya held her hand up.

“I’ll take it.”

The girl frowned and disappeared behind the purple curtain.

Priya took a newspaper from a magazine rack in the corner and picked up her hair. There was a lot of it! If only it looked this thick when it was on her head. She carefully placed all the hair in the middle of a sheet and rolled it up.

“What’s that for?,” asked Gita who was obviously puzzled.

“That’s for my mother.”

“Huh?”

“She told me that if I should ever cut my hair, she wanted to keep it.”


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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!