Punctuate Life

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Waxing Nostalgic

I am guilty of living in the past. I can’t really explain why. It’s like an aching. A longing. A strong conviction that the past held magic amidst the mundane. The glittering golden glory days of yore – far superior than the modern day drudgery. Something about those bygone days captivate me. Something about musty albums with black and white photos pasted carefully on cardboard pages and separated by layers of tissue. Something romantic about the lifestyle. Glimpses of my ancestors hobnobbing with royalty. Girls married off at puberty. Love letters tied up with ribbon and stored in biscuit tins. Where travelling to England meant a long treacherous voyage by sea.

While strolling through the rooms of the Cochin Palace I felt this strong yearning for the past. I imagined the princesses bathing in the pond and then taking long walks through the gardens with deer flitting by. The ladies-in-waiting dressed their hair with jewels and wrapped them in “kasavu” saris. I could almost hear the strains of music and the tinkling of anklets. My heart fluttered at the thought of going back to that time in history. My friend shook me out of my reverie and narrated “not so romantic” aspects of a woman’s life in days of the Raj.

I have only my grandma to blame for painting such a glorious picture of her high society days. She threw parties galore and had Russian ex-pats wining and dining with her. Although her trip to England was marked by hardship and disease, it still held a certain magic for me. I wish I could go back in time just to see my grandpa and how tenderly he looked at my grandma, the love of his life. To maybe dance with him, the way he danced with all the little girls in the room, crouching down to their height and sashaying them around till they giggled in pure glee. Or to just hear his voice and the authority it held. To travel back to England and help my grandma bake bread or watch as she presided over an Indian committee.

Or if I could simply pack my bags and stow away on a ship to the past and be an invisible observer – not intruding, not changing the course of history, but simply taking it all in – turning all the musty, black and white photos to fragrant Technicolor movies if you will. The war, the rations, the biting cold of an English winter, the glamorous parties and the beautifully furnished bungalows. See my grandma as she grieved the loss of my grandpa and quietly but unobtrusively send her vibes of sympathy and courage so she could go on and meet me later. Only to tell tales of how things were and how we could never go back to that charmed life.

When I visit mountains where Native Americans once roamed, the very same yearning fills my heart. Of roaming free in the wilderness, one with nature, drinking from the stream, picking berries and running away from bears. Like Pocahontas but without any interference from the British. Maybe I’d like to go to even Ireland, when druids made potions and witches spoke spells. Or Japan when emperors ruled and Buddhism was taking root. Maybe I travel to these places in my dreams and maybe some day time travel won’t be just an idea in a book.

But until then I have resigned myself to live with that aching, that longing, knowing that it is gone, much like the people that lived in it, mingled in the dust, faint in the memories of those still alive, every fading ever more.


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Unleash the Goddess Within

Whenever I think of Goddesses incarnating on earth I fondly remember my grandma. She was a powerful matriarch with an iron staff (or should I say sword?) She was fearless and stood up to most anyone – die-hard patriarchs included – who saw her as a hapless widow. She owned her power. She was kind, generous, loving and very shrewd. She saw through facades and flagrant unctuousness although she appeared to revel in it. She was like a fierce lioness with a brood of cubs that she guarded vehemently. She was definitely a Durga. There is this picture of her taken on her birthday. She is dressed immaculately in white, brandishing a sword (thanks to her indulgent brother) while sitting on her bed with her dogs languishing in the background. On her nightstand she had a picture of the Goddess Durga slaying Mahishasura with his decapitated buffalo’s head and body lying under the goddess astride a lion. The lion is mauling the remains of the demon while blood drips off her trident.

I was reading the book, “Awakening Shakti” by Sally Kempton and it was all about the different goddesses and their powers. It even had a fun quiz at the end – Which Goddess are You? The author didn’t want the readers to take it too seriously and just wanted everyone to have some fun. I took the quiz in that very same spirit but slowly it took on a serious turn. I related to different Goddesses with very contrasting qualities. Of course everyone is a mix of qualities and it’s not always possible to fit in one particular category. In my case however, I saw how I was dominated by one Goddess during one part of my life and others during other parts of my life.

Every woman goes through a phase in her life when she feels like a goddess, oozes charisma and a dizzying fragrance that others find irresistible. In fact some men fear the power of such a woman and demonize her as the femme fatale. The evil one that seduces one and all. Some patriarchal societies don’t encourage women to flaunt their beauty. They want it kept under wraps and want women to feel ugly about their bodies. In extreme cases they mutilate women as a way of punishing them for embodying the beauty of a Goddess. Look around you and notice how people make you feel ugly or unworthy or encourage you to hide your inner beauty because they are afraid of it. To be a goddess you must see beauty within you and appreciate beauty around you.

At one time widows were expected to shave their heads and wear drab or white robes and no jewelry so they would not tempt other men into entering into a liaison with them. Which brings me back to my grandma. She wore white saris but was the epitome of style. Probably the years she spent in England made her realize that not everywhere are widows treated as outcastes. But she did not discard all of her Indian upbringing. She somehow molded the two and made white her fashion statement. How empowering is that?

Remember Sita? The beautiful goddess who married the handsome Prince Rama. The divine couple were a dazzling sight and people could barely take their eyes off the two of them. But later on in the story the beautiful Sita follows her husband to the forest, suffers untold miseries and then gets abducted by a demon king. She waits for her husband to come rescue her while ugly demons taunt and torture her. Ravana, the demon king waits for her to join his harem. She refuses until one day he can take it no more and attacks her with the intention of molesting her. Only then does the timid Sita take on a fiery persona and forbids Ravana from touching her lest he gets burnt by the intensity of her Shakti or power. Ravana backs off, sensing the intensity of her power and not wanting to risk his life.

To cut a long story short, Rama kills Ravana and rescues Sita but refuses to accept her since she has lived with another man (Sita suffered the changing seasons and was at the mercy of the elements in the Ashoka garden. She never stepped into Ravana’s palace nor did she wear any of the silks and jewels that he offered her.) She had to pass the test of fire to prove that she was chaste. Only then did Rama accept her as his queen.

So many women I know fall into the Sita category. They sacrifice their joys, ambitions and dreams in order to support their spouse and always put themselves last. Why even I am guilty of being a Sita during the early days of my married life. Isn’t that what every mother teaches her daughter consciously or unconsciously? I was reading my journal from many years ago and one of the entries struck me. I was told to “act submissive” during the wedding ceremony. It incensed me now, but my 23 year old self was willing to comply with that absurd request!

We are all taught to be Sitas. To be docile, in the shadows, ever serving our Lord (husband!) Made sense in Sita’s case because Rama was really the Divine incarnate. Now how many husbands treat you the way Rama treated Sita. And even Rama wasn’t perfect!

I was happy to play the domestic goddess. To cook, clean and care for the kids while my husband worked for a pay check. After a few years my domestic goddess felt disempowered. I could no longer play the role of a supportive, self-sacrificing Sita. The Durga in me emerged – fierce and seated on a lion – ready to pounce on anyone who doubted my power. I had to find a balance between nurturing others and myself and that came only from knowing where to draw the line and having the power to defend it.

When I don’t take good care of my needs the Kali comes out in me. Now Kali is the shadow side of the goddess. Dark and menacing with a necklace of skulls and a thirst for blood. Some call it PMS  which to me stands for Protesting Matriarchal Suppression! No one wants to be around Kali. She strikes terror in the hearts of men. And yet she is needed every now and then to restore the balance when it is too far gone to humanly restore.

Is the female of the species deadlier than the male? Occasionally yes, if you push her buttons too hard and too often!  But in a balanced state she nurtures one and all, imparting beauty, knowledge, protection and creativity. So which Goddess are you or which Goddess do you aspire to be?


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Celebrating You

As January 20th approaches my thoughts are with my grandma (Dadima) and I fondly remember the way she celebrated her birthday every year. She didn’t have it easy. Widowed at the age of 36 and sickly most of her life, she had to fend for herself and reinvent herself several times over. From a village girl to a high flying socialite. From someone who had never worked a single day of her life to the first woman LPG distributor. From someone who never stepped outside of the village of Kollengode to an expat.

She had a million reasons to be unhappy and slouch in a corner depressed and uninterested with life. Believe me if I were in her shoes I would have done just that! But not her. She took life by the horns and joyfully went on the ride even if it meant being thrashed around. But somehow she always found reasons to celebrate. Not just festivals and birthdays but herself. Every year on January 20th she threw a big party and invited her close family and all of her workers. She cut a cake as we all sang happy birthday. Her manager would make a speech praising her while she stood by grinning ear to ear. There was nothing vain about it. She simply loved herself and wasn’t afraid to show it. It is what made her so large hearted. For all love starts with self love.

Are you one of those people who think they are too old or too insignificant to celebrate their own birthday? Forget birthdays, do you fail to acknowledge how wonderful you are? When someone compliments you, do you shrug it off or put down yourself? Think about it. You are pushing away the very things every human being craves for – appreciation, validation and love.

Do you look in the mirror and smile at what you see or do you groan and mentally list everything that is wrong with your face, figure, hair and skin? For years I watched my grandma get dressed for work. After she was done fixing her hair in a bun, she had this look of satisfaction and an inner smile if you will. She clearly loved what she saw in the mirror. She oozed confidence out of every pore of her body and people picked up on that and ended up admiring her. It was no mean task running a business with absolutely no training or experience and she did it with style and panache. I’m not saying she didn’t ever make mistakes. She did. But she somehow didn’t dwell on them and beat herself about it.

I have always been hard on myself and never give myself credit where it is due. People always picked up on that and saw me with all my imperfections. I was afraid of everything. Of driving. Of working. Of getting fired because I’m not good enough. Of being a horrible mother. I was my own worst enemy. Even if other people thought I was capable of stepping up and meeting challenges I didn’t believe I had it in me. So life was one disappointment after another. A tiny door of opportunity would open and I would slam it shut with my self-doubt and lack of faith.

Even when people tell you something about yourself that is a roaring lie, you believe it. I guess at some point I was sick of it all and made a conscious effort to befriend life and make peace with myself. To celebrate myself and life like my grandma did. When I saw the beauty and wonder in me, life opened up and everything I wished for just fell from the heavens into my open arms.

I secretly (not anymore!) try to be like my grandma and although I have a long way to go, I think I’m getting there.  I wish for my grandma’s fiery spirit, her zest and total commitment to life. She did not stand in the sidelines and watch her life slipping by. She took charge, took on challenges and celebrated herself, her family and her work. She kept giving and life gave her back thousand fold. Looking back at all the challenges (mostly self-imposed) that I have overcome, I know she is proud of me and celebrating every victory of mine.  She is and will always be my greatest cheerleader. And I will always celebrate her.

 

 


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Driving Miss DC…

How some of us take driving for granted! An article in Reader’s Digest about a Saudi woman who couldn’t drive (like all women in Saudi) got me thinking of the time I couldn’t drive. No, I didn’t ever set foot in Saudi Arabia. I lived most of my life in India, where my grandma’s driver drove me to school and back or I carpooled with my best friend G. When I got older my Dad took over. He used to drop me off at my office and then head to work. In the evening I simply walked, took a bus or an auto ( a 3-wheeled vehicle with a hood and a meter – cheaper option than a taxi). Driving was never a necessity. My mom never learnt to drive and my grandma had a driver. But my grandma wanted me to learn to drive. I scoffed at her saying I didn’t own a car.(Vanity! What else can I say?) She insisted that I should but I never heeded her advice. Oh how I regretted it! Not when I was in India, but when I got married and moved to the U.S. of A.

In the U.S. unless you live in a big city, you can’t really rely on public transportation. One is pretty much homebound without a driver’s license. Add kids and biting cold winters to the equation and the picture gets pretty bleak! Most brides from India get busy getting their licenses or applying for jobs. I couldn’t apply for a license without an SSN and my visa did not permit me to work in the U.S. It was a dependent visa and that pretty much described my situation. Three months after I got to the U.S. I was pregnant with my first child. Severe nausea kept me in bed most of the day. I couldn’t step out of the house. I was afraid to go grocery shopping (what if I threw up all over the meat section?). I was afraid to go to my neighbor’s apartment (what if I threw up all over her carpet?). Driving was the last thing on my mind. My husband did the grocery shopping and took me to my doctor’s appointments.

This continued after my daughter was born. My husband had to take off when our baby girl got sick or had a doctor’s appointment. We shopped for groceries over the weekend. If it was too cold he went alone. I pretty much gave up on the idea that I would ever get a license. The only time I regretted not having a license was when my husband had a kidney stone. He was in excruciating pain and had to drive himself to the emergency room.

After we celebrated my daughter’s first birthday, I found out I was pregnant. The nausea wasn’t as bad as the first time around but I barely had any energy to take care of A and myself. After my son was born we had so much going on with him that another couple of years went by. When I was finally ready to get my permit, the DMV insisted that I didn’t have enough documents to be granted one. A few frustrating years later, which saw my husband skip around his work schedule trying to accommodate doctor’s appointments (times 2!), trips to the preschool and everything else in between, I finally got my employment authorization. Now I had enough documents to get my learner’s permit.

In India depending on age and marital status, either dads or husbands teach their daughters or wives driving. Typically early in the morning when the roads are deserted or in the outskirts of the city where traffic is negligible. My husband’s Dad taught him driving when he was old enough to apply for a license. So my husband took me to a parking lot for my first lesson. By then my kids were older and we had wonderful friends who volunteered to baby sit. After driving around in a few parking lots at 5 m.p.h. I realized this was not a good idea. My husband was afraid I’d dent the car (hence the 5 m.p.h. speed limit). Every lesson saw us getting more and more stressed out. Finally we both agreed that I should just go to a driving school.

In 2009, after my grandma passed away I was determined to get my license. It was my tribute to her. But just after I finished my first lesson we got news from my husband’s company that we had to move to Florida. After a break of several months (as we settled down in Florida) I had to get my license and get it fast. Work pressure was high, my husband’s office was far away from home and working from home was not an option. I signed up for weekend lessons. My instructor (whom I will never forget) was a grandma with a great sense of humor. She teased and poked fun at me to get me relaxed. A few lessons later I was ready to take the test. After two attempts I finally got my license. It sits in my purse along with a picture of my grandma. I’m sure she’s saying – finally that girl got some sense in her and got her license!

I’m not one of those people who enjoy driving. I’d rather be driven around so I can take in all the sights around me. But I realize what a blessing it is to have a license (and a car) as I pass the bus stop on rainy days. It’s a blessing to be able to drive and it’s a blessing to have people to drive you around when you can’t. So thank you Papa, Dadima (and all her drivers) and my husband who still loves to drive me around sometimes!

 


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While You Were Sleeping…

My grandmother was a busy woman. She used to work at her gas agency from 8.30 in the morning to 1.00 in the afternoon. Then she’d come home for lunch, pop a handful of pills (she had heart disease and high blood pressure) and settle down for a nap. She napped every day from 1.30 to 3.00. She was a light sleeper and when one of the million clocks in her room chimed she’d jump out of bed and get dressed for work.

When I was growing up in my grandma’s house, I would get back from school after my grandma had left for work at 3.30 in the evening. But come weekends, my grandma would insist that I go lie down next to her and take a nap. She wouldn’t take no for an answer so I’d end up in bed with her, a big blanket over me. I’d lie absolutely still until I heard soft snores emanating from my grandma’s side of the bed. I’d wait a couple more minutes and then gingerly slip out of the bed and head to the door. Now this was the tricky part. Like I said, my grandma was a light sleeper and the smallest noise would rouse her. Ever so gently I would push down the handle of the door and slip outside. As I closed the door and released the handle as slowly as I could the metal would touch the wood and my grandma’s eyes would fly open. She would give me a look of disdain as I turned away and snuck outside to play.

I would cut up leaves of various hues in the garden and grind some bricks to make chili powder. Then I’d arrange the bricks to make a stove and cook my leaves in tiny steel pots and pans which my grandma got for me. When I was older my grandma had young maids and they were my playmates. So when my grandma and the older maids were taking a nap we’d play all sorts of games and I would teach them how to write their names in English.

It didn’t matter if you were a kid or a grandma or a middle-aged person, anyone spending a day or more with my grandma would be coaxed to take a nap. If she was very close to the person, she’d fetch them a pillow and blanket and ask them to sleep right next to her. In 2009, just days before she passed away I lay beside her with my daughter. I held her soft hands and fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion. I woke up hearing the nurse talk on the phone – her pulse is going down – she was saying. Two days later my grandma was gone.

I’m not much of a napper but when I had my first baby I started taking naps in the afternoon. My daughter was quite a good sleeper and she woke up just once during the night. It was when my son came along that sleep deprivation took on a whole new meaning! His schedule was erratic. He woke up every 2 hours at night to feed or be comforted back to sleep. I couldn’t nap in the afternoon because the two of them wouldn’t nap at the same time. I would be dying to take a nap but I couldn’t and my long day would end only at 11.00 p.m. Just as I dozed off, baby number 2 would wake up screaming!

I would wander around like a zombie and get irritated if someone buttered the toast too loudly! I was on edge and would start yelling at the slightest provocation. By the time my son was one I was ready to wean him and let him cry himself to sleep! My husband jumped in to my rescue and he tried feeding my son from a bottle. My son however never took to the bottle or formula for some reason and after 3 days he stopped waking up at midnight.

I didn’t need naps anymore but I did need some downtime. So I got the kids to nap at the same time. It was tricky because my son would want to roll off the bed and go play. I had to put him in the middle and hug him ever so tightly so he wouldn’t wriggle away. My daughter was really getting to the age where she didn’t need naps but she used to humor me (angel that she is! ) Once they feel asleep they’d only wake up after 2 hours.  Those 2 hours were when I watched the Oprah show or read without the book being yanked off or spoke to friends on the phone without being interrupted. I developed great respect for the concept of napping.

And soon after that I was terrified of napping while my kids were awake. Here is what happened. We had gone on a trip to the West Coast and when we got back home I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the couch while my kids were playing around. My son decided to try shoving a straw up my nostril and I woke up startled. As they got older the fear dissipated and sometimes I would nap in the afternoons and let them play. They would assume it was ‘their time’ (unsupervised time). So they’d run out to the patio with buckets of water and start washing their bikes or doing some messy craft that requires adult supervision.

I rarely nap these days and on weekends when my husband sometimes takes a nap, the kids and I play board games. When we go back home to India to visit our parents we end up napping because of the jet lag. Also all the travelling and running around visiting friends and family gets us exhausted. Probably when we are old and gray (second childhood!) we’ll go back to napping the way kids did when they were babies!

 


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When the Omens Spell Doom…

No, I’m not talking about apocalypses. Not even World War III. I’m just exploring a question that came up during a conversation with a friend. She really didn’t believe in signs and was joking around about the ‘Universe’ sending her a really rotten sign. Me in all my self-righteous glory, got all defensive and declared – The Universe only sends positive signs!  After I hung up I wondered – Does it?

Let’s roll back to the year 2009. January 2009 to be precise. We were to travel to India to celebrate my grandmother’s 80th birthday. It is one trip I’ll never forget. It started off with a blizzard as we made our way to Logan International. Our flight to New York was cancelled and subsequently, all flights to New York were cancelled. The JFK airport was shutdown due to heavy snowfall. We couldn’t drive down in such bad weather so we tried to get a flight for the next morning. We were told that the next available flight was for Thursday of the following week. A day after my grandmother’s 80th birthday! I was almost in tears but instead of going back home we pleaded with every airline to put us on the earliest available flight.

Finally, we got a flight for next morning. When we arrived at JFK airport, the flight to India was overbooked. Several passengers from all over the North East had missed their flights due to the snowstorm and now the airlines were scrambling to get them to their destinations. We had to wait until 11.00 p.m. for our flight into Dubai. We wandered aimlessly all over JFK airport and met other aimless world travelers. Soon we had ourselves a group. Something that distracted us from a grueling day, dealing with airlines and spending countless hours at airport terminals. By 11.00 p.m. we couldn’t wait to board our 13-hour flight to Dubai. But the flight was delayed due to technical difficulties. The fact that we would miss our connection flight to Chennai loomed large. But we were powerless and totally at the mercy of the airlines. On the flight my ‘Om’ pendant which I was very attached to, got snagged on my daughter’s sweater. I undid it and then tightened the clasp (or I thought I did). I lost my pendant and my black-bead necklace which my parents got me for my wedding somewhere on the flight or in the airport.

Of course when we got to Dubai we had missed our connection flight. Again we had to run from pillar to post begging the airlines to rebook us. The next available flight was a whole 14 hours later! By this time we were all tired, hungry and slightly smelly from not having showered in a long time. We couldn’t conceive spending another 14 hours holed up in some lounge. Each airline blamed the other and refused to take on our motley group of bedraggled, malodorous and time-warped travelers. After several hours of haggling, a kindred spirit offered us visas to exit the endless loops of airport terminals we were stuck in.

A shuttle took us to a hotel, where we showered and wore the same clothes (I swore to pack an extra set of clothes for all of us in the future!) We ate some food that was not served in aluminum trays. My kids and husband took a nap. I was too scared we’d oversleep so I sat with my legs propped up on a stool. We made it on time for our final flight of the week.

Our parents were happy to see us, four days after our initial departure from Boston. If you think the story ends here you are wrong. I haven’t reached the worst part yet! I called my grandmother from the airport and her nurse picked up the phone. She said – granny is not well. At which point my grandma snatched the phone from her. She didn’t sound very well and was totally incoherent. I asked my mother if I should go see her right away. My mom assured me that she would be all right.

When we got home, we opened up the suitcases one by one. TSA had opened up every one of them. The specially engraved “Grandma” globe was shattered and all its contents spilt all over the suitcase. That’s when I got a really bad feeling. When we visited my grandma the next day she looked frail and sickly. No one except the nurse could understand what she was saying. Everyone said that now with me by her side she would get better and we could celebrate her birthday which was two days away. That was not to be. Her pulse started dropping in the afternoon and her breathing became labored. She stopped eating all together. The end came a day before her 80th birthday. I was shattered. We had planned to attend a celebration and now we had to arrange for a funeral. I wished I had been there earlier. I wished I had never gone away. All those years away from her – I couldn’t ever buy back that time. The tears wouldn’t stop falling and my heart wouldn’t stop hurting.

All those bad things that happened were in a way preparing me for this. I didn’t see the blessing in this situation. But then everyone who came to the funeral uttered these words to me – She was waiting for you. You are lucky you got to be here with her. What if I had simply given up and returned home when our first flight was cancelled? I wouldn’t have ever seen her alive and God knows if I would have made it in time for her funeral. Some mysterious force got me to fight my way through every delay and every obstacle. They say every soul gets to decide when it leaves the body and also who gets to be with them when they transition. That my grandma wanted me (who lived half-way across the globe) to be there with her is such a blessing to me.

So to answer the question – does the Universe send us bad omens or signs? Absolutely! Just to prepare us for what is to come. But not every sign is a sign from the Universe. Some can be simply a figment of our imagination or ego.

 


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Short Story 1 – Ghosts from the Past

“Daddyma,  do  you  know  of  any  ghosts?”  asked  Nina

Nina’s  grandma  propped  herself  on  her  cottony  white  pillow  and  turned  around  to  look  at  Nina.

“Have  met  a  couple  of  them  in  my days,” she  said  rolling  her  eyes.

“Really?”

Nina   sat  up  excitedly,   her  eyes  wide.  She  cuddled  up  next  to  her  daddyma.

“Tell   me! Tell  me!” Nina  pressed.

Daddyma  cleared  her  throat.

“When  your  father  was  around  10,  that’s  your  age,  every  summer  we  used  to  drive  down  from  Bombay  to  Madras…”

“Was  grandpa  also  there  then?”  Nina  interrupted.

“Yes  dear.  Your  grandpa  passed  away  when  your  Papa  was  in  college.  This  happened  a  number  of  years  before  that.  Now  where  was  I?”

“You  used  to  drive  down  from  Bombay  to  Madras.  Every summer.”

“Yes.  Yes.  Your  papa,  Grandpa,  the  driver,  the  nanny  and  I .  It  was  a  long  drive,  nearly  three  to  four  days  and   we  had  to  stop  at  this  motel  for the  night.”

“That’s  where  you  met  the  ghost?”

“Yes  sweetie.”

“It  haunted  your  room?”

“Not  exactly.  Grandpa  and  I  didn’t  sleep  in  our  room.  I  spotted  a   cockroach  under  the  bed  and  you  know  how  terrified  I’m  of  those creatures.”

Nina  giggled.

Daddyma  shuddered  and  then  continued, “I  insisted  that  we  sleep  in  the  hallway.  So  we  pulled  out  all  the  bedding  and  camped  outside  our  room.”

“All  of  you  fit  there?  Must  have  been  a  big  place”

“No, no, no.  Only  grandpa  and  I  slept  there.  Your  papa  and  the  nanny  were  in  a  different  room  and  the  driver  slept  in  the  car.  I  couldn’t  get  any sleep  wondering  if  there  were  cockroaches  crawling  around  in  the  hallway.  That’s  when  I  heard  it.”

“What?  The  ghost?” asked  Nina,  her  grip  on  her  grandma’s  hand  tightened.

“Hmm.  But  I  didn’t  know  it  was  a  ghost.  I  heard  footsteps  coming  up  the  wooden  stairs  and  thought  it  was  some  other  guest  at  the  motel.  Then my  toes  felt  wet.  I  opened  my  eyes  and  I  saw  a  man  standing  over  me,  clad  in  a  swimsuit,  his  wet  towel  hanging  from  his  arm  and  the  water  was dripping   on  my  feet.  I  jumped  up  to  my  feet  wondering  what  it  was  he  wanted  with  us.”

“ ‘I  think  you’re  occupying  my  room,’ he said  in  a  heavy  British  accent.”

“ ‘I  think  you’re  mistaken.  This  room  was  vacant  when  we  moved  in.  Perhaps,  it’s  another  room  you  are  looking  for.’  I  offered.”

“ ‘Is  this  room  number  301?,’ he  said  gruffly”

“ ‘Yes,’ I  said.”

“ ‘Then  it’s  my  room,’  he  growled.”

“ ‘I  think  there  has  been  some  mix- up  mister…?’”

“ ‘Harris.  George  Harris.’”

“ ‘Mrs. Menon,’ I  said  and  stuck  out  my  hand.”

“Mr. Harris  shirked  away  and  said  menacingly, ‘ I  don’t  shake  hands  with  dirty  Indians’.”

“My  blood  boiled  and  if  he  weren’t  taller  than  I  and  not  half  as  well  built  I  would  have  punched  him  in  the  face.”

“Daddyma!”  said  Nina  disbelievingly.  She  couldn’t  imagine  her  frail  little  grandma  smacking  an  Englishman.

“ Anyway,  he  kept  insisting  that  it  was  his  room  and  I  insisted  that  it  was  not  and  told  him  to  take  it  up  with  the  manager- if  he  was  awake.  I then  heard  him  muttering  and  thumping  his  way  down  the  steps.  That  was  the  last  I  saw  of  him.”

“How  did  you  know  he  was  a  ghost?” asked  Nina.

“ The  next  morning  we  asked  the  manager  about  it   and  he  said  there  was  no  one  by  that  name staying  at  the  motel.  Grandpa  said  I  must  have dreamt  about  it  but  I  was  pretty  sure  I  didn’t.  I  asked  the  staff  to  look  up  their  guest  books  and  later  that  day  they  found  his  name  in  a  very  old guest book.  He  stayed  there  during  the  Indian  freedom  struggle  and  was  shot  by  an  Indian  in  room  number  301.”

 

 

 

 

 


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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.


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Love Never Dies…

Sandy hit last week and took many people with it. The pictures of the damage were heart wrenching. One cold December not too long ago we woke up freezing. A freak ice storm had left our town without power. We had to live in a friend’s place and then a hotel for five days until the power was restored. We did not lose our home or our belongings and none of us were hurt. But just being without a home for a few days is enough to make you feel displaced and uncomfortable. Imagine the plight of millions who not only lost power but also their homes and some even their loved ones. This week an earthquake in Guatemala killed many people and caused severe damage. I couldn’t shake off the sadness and then before I could pick myself up, I was dealt another blow.

My former colleague passed away. He is two years older to me and leaves behind a wife, twin toddler boys and a newborn. I spoke to his wife this week and I could feel her pain. I bit my lip and fought back the tears as I spoke to her. Just a couple of weeks ago I started writing the story of my grandma and this is how I started – right on the day my grandpa died, leaving my 36 year old grandma a widow with no work experience, no college degree and a little money. My Dad had just started college. When I wrote it was from my grandma’s perspective and in her voice. I almost cried when I spoke to my colleague’s wife because the feelings associated with losing one’s spouse were fresh in my psyche.

The feeling of loss is universal. It’s something no mortal can escape. It doesn’t matter if it’s your grandma. grandpa, mother, father, spouse, sibling, friend or child. It just leaves a huge void. One that all the love in the world cannot fill. All the people in the world cannot fill it. You feel orphaned, abandoned and forced to deal with life without your loved one. It’s not fair! How can you go on?

A dark mood swept over me this week and even though I planned to write this post, a part of me was saying – What are words? Just empty symbols. How can I make the pain go away? I can’t. No one will believe me when I say I feel you. I’ve been there. We become one in our experience of pain, grief and loss in very much the same way we become one in love, happiness and prosperity. There is a saying that goes – when you laugh the world laughs with you and when you cry you cry alone. I’m not so sure about that one. Here is my experience taken from an older post Daring and Different…My Dadima…

I was foolish to think she had touched but one life – mine. When people came to me with stories of her kindness and love, I cried copious tears. It felt like their pain was my pain. We had all lost someone special. Someone who thought we were special and treated us like royalty.

The pain you feel is real. No one can replace him/her. But time does heal and love will find a way to make you ache less. The loss of my grandma was not easy to deal with. I grew up in her shadow (or should I say aura?) I was lucky that I got to be with her when she passed away (braving winter storms, cancelled flights and long stop-overs). But still I felt guilty for the time I spent away from her. I could never get that back – it was gone and she was gone. I cried alone when no one was watching. Every birthday and holiday I would miss her terribly and cry. Every February (that is the month she passed away)  I would plunge into depression. It took me two years to make peace with her passing. I cannot give you a timeline for grieving or a date to move on. It will take time, it will take help and it will take a lot of prayer.

I keep going back to my grandma because I think she dealt with death in the right way. She never feared it and was never in awe of it. She just accepted it. She did however lose faith in God and Astrology after her husband was whisked away from her far too soon. Astrologers had predicted that the couple would live a long, happy life. And here she was 36 and widowed and with no clue how to carry on. She did however have a strong will to overcome the odds. She also had this – a strong connection with my grandpa even though he was not physically present. She often talked about dreaming about him and telling him her problems. Looking back at her life I can tell she most certainly got help from the other side. She always had enough money to take care of herself and pay the huge hospital bills. She always had helpful people and synchronistic things kept happening to her.

After her passing I felt her presence. Many things I had wanted in the past, came to me more easily. Like getting  a driver’s license, moving to a warmer place, even making friends. You say it’s a coincidence. I say it’s her putting in a word for me up there. In each case I have received signs that she has intervened on my behalf to bring me things in this mortal plane to make me happy.

Some of you may be reading this and not really understanding the full purport of my words. I’m saying that our souls never die and are not limited by the body. We go on forever. We are infinite beings. You are never alone even if you do not realize it. It’s like having air to breathe – you don’t think about it. There is more to life than death. Death is not the end. It is the beginning of another journey. We get a glimpse of this world when we sleep. In sleep we don’t feel our bodies, don’t remember the past and are blissful. We also travel to other magical places in what we call dreams.  A soul does the same when it leaves its body.  Even though we feel they are gone, they are free than ever before and can be with us if we want them to – in the most gentle and nonthreatening way. Supporting us and loving us even more than they could when they were alive and amongst us.


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Daring and Different…My Dadima

This post is long overdue. I meant to write this is 2009 and get it published in a newspaper or magazine in Chennai, India. Since that didn’t happen I guess I’ll have to be happy with this. M asked me the other day – who is your idol? I mentioned the name of my deceased guru. But as I thought about it I realized I have several people on that list. And my grandmother is somewhere on the top of that list.

I called her Dadima even though we don’t speak Hindi at home. She was not your usual run-of-the-mill granny who told you stories, cooked for you and tucked you in bed. In fact, she has never cooked a single meal for me. Nor did she read the Ramayana or wear tulsi beads. You see Dadima had a career. And she worked right up until her dying day. She lost the love of her life, my grandfather at the age of 35 ( I shudder to think that I’m almost 35!) All the odds were against her. She had only passed 10th grade, had no college education, no work experience, no trust fund, no nest eggs…nothing! My grandma had to fend for herself and support my Dad, who was in college. She could have slumped down in a corner and cried for the rest of her life. Or lived off her relatives. No. Not my Dadima.

She went on to become the first lady distributor for LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas). The kind that comes in ‘cylinders’ and is used for cooking in India. As a business woman she was tough and put everyone in their place. Everyone who thought she was an old widow and can be pushed around learnt their lesson quickly. She was feisty and fearless. She did what she wanted and offered no explanations or justifications. People thought twice before messing with her. She could be an angel or she could be your worst nightmare.

To me she was an angel, dressed in white and always hovering around me and whispering words of endearment to me. She called me her ‘gem’. She was one person who really truly believed that I was precious. I practically grew up in Dadima’s house. My parents feared for my brother’s life. They were quite certain that I would get into a jealous rage and attack him with sharpened pencils! So I was packed off to Dadima’s house.

I used to sleep next to Dadima every night, sharing the bed with two overfed dogs, Diana and Priya. Dadima loved them as much as she loved me. They ate off her plate, drank from her glasses, dirtied her pristine white sheets and she would look the other way. I’ve heard people say, “Oh how I wish I could be Mrs. Damodaran’s dog!” Spoilt rotten they were. Used to ride the car to school everyday with me, with their tongues lolling out of the window.

All the dogs she had were female by the way. Did I mention Dadima had the words ‘GIRL POWER” etched in hot pink invisible ink all over her house? Oh yeah! There were pictures of goddesses wielding fierce weapons and trampling weak male villians. I remember playing dress up with her numerous white handbags and high heeled shoes and sandals, draping her sheer duppatas around my head, the way she used to when she was in the sun with matching white sunglasses. She was always well dressed. Hated the heat and used to complain about it and how she loved the cold when she was in Great Britian. She had so many funny anecdotes she used to share with me. Stories that gave me a glimpse of the carefree life she lived in the past when my granddad was around. All she used to do was dress up for parties and manage the scores of servants they had.

One of the reasons my grandad treated Dadima like the Queen of England was her poor health. She had several close calls. She almost died of a brain tumor and was so ill on a ship headed to India from England, that the captain of the ship said she’d have to be buried at sea if she didn’t make it. She made it and went on to have a granddaughter – me. But as far back as I can remember, she had been in and out of hospitals most of her life. Some visits were short and routine. Others were long and scary and I’ve been called many a time to her bedside where she lay with one foot in the grave. She had appendicitis, blood pressure, an enlarged heart, a hysterectomy and then diabetes in the latter years of her life. But everytime she’d make it out of the hospital stronger and more full of life. Never would she take a day off work or lie in bed all day complaining about her health.

She was very proud of her brain. She always said my heart gives me a lot of trouble but my brain was overhauled in England (during the brain tumor years I think). It was true. She never forgot a single birthday or anniversary. She personally selected and wrote birthday cards for everyone. She made sure we all got a card and a birthday cake every birthday. New clothes for New Year and Diwali. Black Forest Cake and Fruit Cake over the holidays with puffs. She loved entertaining and loved having people over for dinner. Even if someone turned up uninvited and it was lunch or dinner time she would ask them to stay and eat with her. She never wrote lists for groceries or anything. I’ve seen the servants tell her before she went to work that they needed soap or shampoo or rice and she would somehow remember everything and bring it home in the evening.

She had an opinion about everything. Her political and religious views were radical. Around the house she had pictures of Mother Mary and Jesus. Statues of Buddha. She had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. She loved the villian Ravana for being fearless even when fighting a God and hated Rama (who was the hero of Ramayana) for doubting Sita’s chastity and subjecting her to the test of fire (Agni Pariksha). Tinge of feminism there. She loved Saddam Hussain for having the ‘guts’ to stand up to a super power like the United States.

At her funeral several people read verses from the Bible while her family chanted Hare Rama and her Muslim neighbors of 40 years looked on. She truly embraced one and all. Put aside her troubles to help others. I was foolish to think she had touched but one life – mine. When people came to me with stories of her kindness and love, I cried copious tears. It felt like their pain was my pain. We had all lost someone special. Someone who thought we were special and treated us like royalty.

She was everything every woman would want to be. And in these years that I have had to live without her, this is my constant prayer – if ever I have to live on this earth again please let her be my grandmother for many lifetimes to come.